Sunday, 13 December 2015

Fantastic February in December: four penalty saves add much-needed sparkle to a bad year for South African football

Penalty king: Ajax Cape Town's Jody February
JODY FEBRUARY IS NOT A PENALTY SPECIALIST. His words not mine. Like Lionel Messi saying he's not much of a finisher, or Lewis Hamilton doesn't like fast cars.

The 19-year-old goalkeeper, understudy to Finland’s Anssi Jaakkola at Ajax Cape Town, saved a record-equalling FOUR penalties on Saturday as AmaGlugGlug somehow clinched third spot to grab their place at the Rio Olympics next year.

I can’t remember anything like it. Even the late Senzo Meyiwa must be up there somewhere, dancing in delight.

During a frantic 90 minutes, February pulled off a number of saves and somehow kept it to 0-0 as Senegal fired in 25 shots on his goal. But the defining moment came in the 73rd minute, when Jody himself was adjudged to have brought down an on-rushing striker.

February, unruffled, went full-length to his right to deny Moussa Keita a winner from the spot. Senegal followed-up and hit the woodwork but the hosts had to settle for the penalty shoot-out to decide the U23 Afcon third place play-off.

And that’s when February really got going, saving a sensational three out of four.

The first, a firm block to the right to give Bafana's U23 an immediate advantage in the shoot-out. The second, most impressive of all, a flying block to the left. He literally took off. A couple of misses from Bafana Bafana’s nervous lads (Kwanda Ngonyama and Keagan Dolly) meant there was one last miracle to come, a stop with the legs which left Phakamani Mahlambi, our outfield player of the tournament, to slot home the winner for South Africa.

Amid tearful celebrations afterwards, February insisted: “I’m at a loss for words... I am not a penalty specialist, I’m just happy!

“We showed that with passion determination and a lot of sweat we can achieve things as South Africa. This is good start, there are things to come.

“Thanks for all congratulations from back home. I just wanted to contribute to the team.”

Headed for Rio: South Africa's U23s after February's heroics
Coach Owen da Gama, who made a total of 12 changes to the team in five games (two wins, two defeats and a penalty enhanced draw) said: “The players were very motivated as they made history for themselves. We last qualified 15 years ago now we are going to the Olympics again.

“In this tournament we have learnt from all teams. We still haven't played our best football. today we had the mental strength to fight.

“It's not how you start but how you finish. I also think we were lucky. Sorry to Senegal. We were fortunate in this match the boys fought hard and it's clear that the harder you work, the luckier you get.

Back home in Sandton at the SAFA Congress, president Danny Jordaan insisted: “This has been an extraordinary year for our national teams.”

“Wow, what can I say apart from congratulating coach Owen da Gama and the boys. This has been some year for our national teams.

“Now, everyone can see what we mean by Vision 2022 when it comes to preparing winning teams both on the continent and globally.

“We as SAFA have just announced a huge profit of over R40 million at the 25th SAFA Congress on Saturday and now our U23 side has just put the icing on the cake with this marvellous result. Take a bow Owen and the boys.”

But the Mayor of Port Elizabeth is fooling us. In truth, it’s been a dreadful year for South African football. Vera Pauw got our girls to the Olympics too, but there were ridiculous calls for her head before that.

Bronze: the AFCON medal
We go in to 2016 with Bafana BOTTOM of their AFCON 2017 qualifying group, out of CHAN and unquestionably Shaky. Our U17 AmaJimbos, like Shakes Mashaba’s men at AFCON 2015, finished their World Cup with one point. We missed out on the All Africa games and the women's U20 World Cup. The two-legged win over Angola in pre-qualifying for Russia was Bafana's only true success.

Vision 2022 degenerated in to a farce, with veterans and has-beens picked repeatedly by our national head coach as we plunged down the FIFA world rankings.

The truth is Danny, we were LUCKY. But these Under 23s are the future. In the spirit of Vision 2022 at least five of them should have been playing regularly for the senior team.

But we soldier on, a nation rarely capable of getting to the African Champions League group stages, forced to celebrate a rare surge to the second-rate CAF Confederations Cup final this season. A nation held at home by Gambia and beaten in Mauritania.

Cameroon home and away at the end of March will probably confirm our failure to qualify for AFCON 2017 in Gabon, which will give South Africa the chance to appoint a new regime before the World Cup draw in June and the start of group qualifying for Russia 2018 in November.

Hopefully by then, sanity will prevail. Our big guns playing in Europe will be treated fairly. Dolly, Mobara, Mahlambi, Motupa and Masuku - perhaps even Liam Jordan and Jody February - will be the stars. And we’ll stop the continual chopping and changing prompted by rogue agents and poor management.

In fact, let’s make that a New Year resolution.

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