Saturday, 19 December 2015

PLENTY OF PRESENTS: It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas for Kaizer Chiefs.

PENALTY KING: Willard Katsande
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for Steve Komphela at Kaizer Chiefs. Santa, with a shrill whistle, has been rushing up and down the chimney at Naturena with plenty of unexpected gifts.

Don’t take my word for it, ask Pitso Mosimane and Gavin Hunt. Though understandably biased against the AmaKhosi, they do have the right to an opinion.

For me, the greatest gifts of all came from referee Khulisani Qongqo on Reconciliation Day at the Moses Mabhida Stadium. Mamelodi Sundowns were running away with the Telkom KO final, leading 2-0 when two unwelcome surprises were thrown at Masandawana in the space of 13 minutes.

First Thabo Nthethe was blown for a foul on Camaldine Abraw, who fell as he cut across the Mamelodi Sundowns captain, still elated after scoring the second goal. PENALTY, said Santa Qongqo.

In the 73rd minute, the unfortunate Nthethe was left stunned again, this time when the ball hit him under the arm while he was sliding in on Reneilwe Letsholonyane. Another PENALTY, said Santa Qongqo. Ho ho ho!

Of course, history records than Ugandan goalkeeper Dennis Onyango saved both spot kicks, from Siphiwe Tshabalala and Abraw. He went on to win Man of the Match award and Sundowns eventually triumphed 3-1. Justice was done. I’ve seen on soft penalty given, but rarely have I seen TWO in 13 minutes.

Very little was said after this blatant attempt to turn the match around from a referee I hope we never see in charge of a major PSL match again.

On Saturday in Cape Town, with coach Steve Komphela under increasing pressure - he’s actually lost more cup finals than league games this season - Chiefs found themselves up against leaders Wits University, who had also lost just once this term.

CHRISTMAS GIFT! Kaizer Chiefs winner is clearly off-side
Picture: @cklatey on Twitter
Daniel Bennett was in charge, another official known for his cunning ability to survive in the high-pressure world of South African officiating. We were all waiting, and it came. But I have to say, I thought it WAS a penalty when Onismor Bhasera brought down Abraw.

Bad tackle, clear foul. Bennett hesitated but gave it. Willard Katsande, my favourite midfielder, stuck it away, showing Shabba and Abraw how to score from 12 yards.

Wits equalised through Daine Klate, now the PSL’s top scorer with 7, but Lorenzo Gordinho scrambled home a 73rd minute winner. Amid the melee, it looked off-side, only one defender in play... but a difficult one to give for Bennett amid the scrum of players on the goal-line.

Gavin Hunt, the Clever Boys coach who rarely enjoys defeat, had no doubt: “I told the lads, Kaizer Chiefs will be given a start. And I was right. A penalty. But that’s what you expect. We are not a fashionable side. We’ve had 6 penalties against us this season, but not one our way.

“Their second goal? It was off-side wasn’t it? But this is what you get. All the big decisions went against us.

"There was only one side here today, we completely out-played Chiefs.”

After the attempted hi-jack of the Telkom Cup, Pitso was far more circumspect and less inflammatory. He could afford to be. Despite two far worse decisions, he said: “I will not criticise the referee. Everyone could see it.”

Still, we all know the AmaKhosi - previously known as the AmaDrawsi with 6 ties in their first 11 league games - are good for South African football with their 15million fans and huge turnover. So we shouldn’t be too surprised when things go their way.

As a nation this year, we've had a former SAFA member banned by FIFA for six years for match-fixing during Bafana Bafana friendlies before the 2010 World Cup. The South African "co-conspirators" in the FIFA scandal remain anonymous. We refuse to divulge attendance figures and there are any number of weird and wonderful explanations for the strange happenings in South Africa football.

It worries me the football media refuse to even raise the topic of bias, replays don't appear, officials maintain a stony silence... and fans react with abuse to honest questions. But it HAS to be discussed.

Personally, I think Bennett did a good job in Cape Town. Chiefs, though not the better side, won fair and square. And injustice was avoided in Durban on Wednesday. 

Let’s just leave it at that. Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

JUSTICE MUST BE DONE: How Dennis Onyango did just that for Mamelodi Sundowns

PENALTY 1: Parker goes down
PITSO MOSIMANE didn’t have to dwell too long on the blatant attempted hi-jacking of the glittering Telkom KO cup on Wednesday afternoon. 

It happened in front of plenty of witnesses. The attempt was thwarted with some gusto. Pitso's witness statement was short, but sufficient when asked about the two shocking penalties awarded to Kaizer Chiefs by referee Khulisani Qongqo.

The Mamelodi Sundowns coach said simply: “I won’t comment on the referee. Everyone saw it.”

And that was enough. Two soft penalty decisions. Two chances for South Africa’s biggest football team to get back in the game. And Dennis Onyango saved them both to scoop the Man of the Match award with the broadest of smiles.

Qongqo is no beginner. He’s a FIFA sanctioned referee and has done big games in his career, though it’s hard to find out much about South Africa officials generally. I do know he was nominated for PSL referee of the year in 2014 and he’s had overseas assignments.

But what we saw on Reconciliation Day, with 52,000 at the Moses Mabhida Stadium, felt like a calculated attempt to alter the course of the game. For a start, when Chiefs were struggling in the first half, he was slow to act on a series of nasty challenges. He failed to control the game which was, frankly, awful, after the opening goal.

After half-time things brightened up. But Sundowns were always in control. Then Qongqo tried to even things up on the hour mark.

PENALTY 2: ball hits Nthethe's upper arm
The first penalty, when Bernard Parker fell over Thabo Nthethe, was distinctly dodgy. Nthethe was simply suckered in, Parker cut across him and went down. Ashley Young of Manchester United is an expert in this sphere.

Ignoring the furore, Siphiwe Tshabalala stepped up and struck it well, but Ugandan Onyango went the right way and parried.

Just 13 minutes later, Reneilwe Letsholonyane broke in to the box. His effort made contact with the unfortunate Nthethe’s arm, Qongqo hesitated… then pointed to the spot once more. Nthethe was floored at the time, the ball made contact with the top of his arm. Never a penalty.

This time substitute Camaldine Abraw, who was eager to take the first spot kick, stepped up… only for Onyango to save again.

By this time Sundowns captain Nthethe had already put his side 2-0 up with a well-taken header after Colombian Leonardo Castro’s early opener.

To their credit Chiefs, a shadow of the side which won the PSL title with a record 69 points last season, soldiered on despite these two huge blows to morale.

Even when Hlompho Kekaha made it 3-0 to Mosimane’s men to complete his perfect set of PSL silverware, Chiefs found their way to goal in injury time, for a late consolation from Abraw.

But in truth, they were never in it. Pule Ekstein, finally given the chance to show us what he’s got on the biggest stage, failed dismally. He went off with Edward Manqele and Lucky Baloyi in the 54rd minute, in a flurry of changes which left the officials in confusion.

The ever-articulate Steve Komphela tried to explain afterwards: “I can’t sit on the bench and do nothing. You have to react to what is happening. But when their second goal went in, I decided to change all three.”

The confusion ended with a yellow card… and then those two penalty saves.

Onyango explained afterwards: “We’ve been doing a lot of work on penalties. My team-mates were reminding me which way to go for both of them. Because we are a team.”

That’s all very well. After Jody February saved FOUR spot kicks to see our U23s to the Olympics last weekend, this was more of the glorious same.

But my question is: What if BOTH of those dodgy spot kicks had been successfully converted? Chiefs, outplayed and lacklustre throughout the first half, would have been back on level terms.

The R4m cheque from Telkom - shared between the players and technical staff by Sundowns’ understandably generous billionaire owner Patrice Motsepe - would have been torn away from Pitso’s men, who had never beaten Chiefs in a final.

And Komphela, who claimed afterwards his side might have won 5-3 if they had scored those penalties and “three one-on-ones”, would have won his first EVER trophy in 30 years as a player and coach.

My question is this: would the urbane Komphela have treasured his moment, given the referee’s two enthusiastically given spot kicks?

Would justice have been done? I’ve watched both decisions again and again. The first was questionable; no referee would give a second penalty 13 minutes later the way Qongqa did. Not in my experience.

On SuperSport TV, analyst Zane Moosa tried to tell us “The referee was Kaizer Chiefs Man of the Match” but he was cut short. Neither penalty was given a good look in the aftermath. But we only need the words of Pitso: “Everybody saw it.” You did, I did. If you remove the estimated 15 million pairs of gold-tinted glasses, we all did.

But hey. It’s Reconciliation Day. Dennis the Menace saved us from having to consider the dreaded conclusion: Our football is manipulated. Right in front of our eyes. Just like those friendlies before the 2010 World Cup.

For now we can simply tweet #komphelamustfall and think it will make it all better. We can ask why Morgan Gould, after months on the sidelines, was drafted in as centre-back ahead of Siyanda Xulu after Tower Mathoho's ankle injury. 

But remember Pitso running for cover after Sundowns lost to Golden Arrows in September? And remember how Bobby Motaung got rid of coach Stuart Baxter, player of the season Tefu Mashamaite and top-scorer Mandla Masango just a few weeks after that epic title win?

For both those reasons: the AmaKhosi must be patient. Chiefs have lost more cup finals this season (two) than they have PSL games (one)… there is still hope.

But if referees like Khulisani Qongqo continue to given the big games, our football will have no hope at all.

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.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

TINKLER EXCLUSIVE: This is crazy. I didn't send a CV to ANYBODY. I will stay and fight. Pirates will bounce back.

Sinister forces? Pirates coach Eric Tinkler
THERE is so much I can't say about Eric Tinkler and Orlando Pirates right now. But there are some things that can be stated with some emphasis.

Here's the main thing: Tinkler EMPHATICALLY denies sending his CV to two PSL clubs as alleged by the City Press newspaper today.

Quite where such suggestions come from, neither of us can fathom. Tinkler says: "It can't be the chairman. I haven't even had a meeting with him yet since we got back from Tunisia (I suggested nobody can find Dr Irvin Khoza to hold talks, but he didn't confirm or deny that). Everybody's been calling to ask about this meeting but it hasn't happened.

"(Technical Director and former Bafana coach) Screamer Tshabalala and I are getting on really well at the moment. We had a friendly yesterday and we talked nicely. We spoke about the future. There is no problem there.

"It's crazy. There's always speculation about Pirates but this is getting ridiculous. I was in Tunisia and people were saying I'm going to Maritzburg United. They even said Augusto Palacios would be interim manager at Pirates when I got back.

"It's all nonsense. I have a google alert on my phone that beeps whenever a new story comes up... it keeps us entertained!

"Look, we had a tough time in Africa. We got to the Confederations Cup final. We lost in Sousse. Today I've been shopping at Builders' Warehouse and NOT A SINGLE PERSON came up and had a go at me.

"Every fan I meet says hard luck, great effort. Where is this army of people who want me out?

"All I care about now is getting Pirates up the PSL table. We had good results against Ajax Cape Town and Kaizer Chiefs in our last two league games, now we've got Mamelodi Sundowns on December 20th.

"If we win that we could be back in the top eight going in to the Christmas break. We don't have to worry about travelling all over Africa for a while. My job is to get us back in contention.

"I know these players. I know what we can do. I believe we can turn our league season around. Our fans know that we're capable of that."

A lot of other things were said this morning as Tinkler completed his trip around Builders' Warehouse. Unrepeatable here. But for worried Pirates fans, there is nothing sinister in Tinkler's defence of his position. He has a one year contract with a one-year option. At 45, with 48 South African caps behind him, it's worth listening when he says he intends to stay and fight.

For those who suggest he should be ousted, consider Ruud Krol and Roger De Sa. They succumbed to the pressure, they walked. Julio Leal and Vladimir Vermezovic turned up. We all know what happened then.

Tinkler, the tough guy from Roodepoort who bruised shins and won games at the top level in Portugal, Italy and England, offers this mantra: "I am no quitter. Never have been, never will."

Only a quitter would send his CV to rival clubs. It's unthinkable. As Tinkler points out, he gets approaches all the time. He ignores them. So the question is: WHO publishes stories like today's in the City Press. And WHY?

Saturday, 5 December 2015

OWEN UP! How Da Gama gave the football-speaking nation something to cheer about

DYNAMIC DUO: Mashaba and Da Gama
FOR around two hours on Friday night, South Africa’s success-starved football-lovers were able to enjoy significant bragging rights over the rugby and cricket-speaking types who have dominated our sporting sphere for so long.

It wasn’t the greatest game in the world but Bafana Bafana’s U23 victory over Tunisia, thanks to a single late goal from Menzi Masuku, ends a year of living miserably for disk lovers on the southern tip of Africa.

On Wednesday night, this bright bunch of hopefuls will take on Algeria for a place in the CAF U23 semi-final while perfect hosts Senegal play Nigeria. Even if Bafana lose, they get a second chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics next year in the 3rd/4th play-off, where the winners qualify.

Owen Da Gama’s outfit have proved yet again that a week can be a long time in football. The opening 3-1 defeat against Senegal appeared to presage the usual disappointment. Our defence, bolstered by Bafana Bafana’s youngest-ever cap Rivaldo Coetzee, was disjointed. SuperSport United’s Denwin Farmer suffered concussion, and we all suffered the headache with him.

But that eight-minute three-goal spree against Zambia on Tuesday made all the difference. Orlando Pirates pair Gift Motupa - two - and Menzi Masuku, flown in straight from the CAF Confederations Cup second-leg defeat, did the damage.

Though Zambia had taken the lead and scored a late knee-trembler to make it 3-2, Da Gama suddenly found his side in a great position going in to Friday night’s final group game.

From bottom of the group to second in one step, the side formerly known as AmaGlugGlug were ahead of Tunisia on goals scored - both had a goal difference of minus one -  and with every chance of a top two finish in Group A.

The critics, myself included, were reeling. Da Gama made SIX changes for the second game, switched goalkeepers from Ricardo Goss of Golden Arrows to Jody February of Ajax Cape Town, and threw the captain’s armband to Keagan Dolly.

It was all there: not knowing you best side for the opening game, rotating goalkeepers and switching captains. All the hallmarks of the Shakes Mashaba regime… but this time hope was a strange addition to the mix. Just a draw was required.

The first half in M’Bour on Friday was pretty routine stuff. South Africa had the best of the possession, Motupa had a couple of chance to add to his tally and captain Dolly was twice denied by Tunisian goalkeeper Ben Hsa, the second a seriously lethal free-kick.

But without the goal cushion, few were sitting comfortably as Tunisia launched attack after attack in the second half. A single goal would have derailed South Africa’s Olympic ambitions - but then super-sub Phakamani Mahlambi took to the field.

The 18-year-old Wits front-runner, described as “better than Benni McCarthy” by his club boss Gavin Hunt, immediately added impetus and flair. A rampage down the right, a cross… and Menzi Masuku was able to make up for the gift he’d missed two minutes earlier.

That simple tap-in was a perfect response to Pirates’ heart-breaking defeat against Etoile du Sahel and gives BafanaBafana every chance of joining BanyanaBanyana at the Rio summer games next year. To repeat: Three of the four semi-finalists will to to Brazil, giving AmaGlugGlug two chances of qualification.

Though our beloved national broadcaster failed to show the game and SuperSport TV did so without any analysis or post-match, it was a significant moment. With our cricket team getting crushed in India and the Springboks losing their coach, football could finally take centre-stage with something more than a grimace.

Da Gama, voted the best player in Ireland during his time with Derry City in the mid-1980s, can actually dream of a tournament win, but for now it’s one game at a time “Our objective is to win the semi-final. No more. No less.

"It was a very tough game. Credit to the boys, we always said we want to peak at the right time.

”The boys need to rest before Wednesday night. We want a place on the podium.”

Once nicknamed “Rubber Doll” by his fellow players, Da Gama’s bouncebackability is now beyond question. Just how high he can bounce, we are about to find out.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The pain of a two-game weak-end: Pirates sunk, AmaGlugGlug all at sea

SINK OR SWIM: AmaGlugGlug in Dakar on Sunday
ANOTHER bad week for South African football. Another series of questions which will remain unanswered. Sheez. It's a Tale of Two Pities this week.

As South Africa’s U23s were crushed 3-1 by hosts Senegal in the 8-nation CAF Olympic qualifiers and Orlando Pirates were beaten 1-0 in Tunisia by Etoile du Sahel, it’s hard to find crumbs of comfort.

Just two weeks ago Danny Jordaan, the SAFA President who spends most of his time trying to sort out Port Elizabeth’s political problems, was remarkably upbeat.

He told us: “South African football is on the up. Banana Bafana beat Angola in the World Cup, our Under 23s could qualify for Rio 2016 and Orlando Pirates could win the CAF Confederations Cup.”

But a fortnight is a long time in football.

As we hold our heads in our hands we have to consider FACTS. At AFCON 2015, we finished BOTTOM of our group. We are currently BOTTOM of our group in qualifying for AFCON 2017. Our U17 AmaJimbos finished BOTTOM of their group in the World Cup in Chile. And now our U23s are BOTTOM of their group in Senegal.

Of course, for Owen da Gama’s youngsters, once known as AmaGlugGlug, the bottle is still half full. They have Zambia and Tunisia to come in Group A. Anything could happen. Just thank God they’re not in Group B with Algeria, Egypt, Mali and Nigeria.

No independent journalists travelled to Senegal but I have an associate who jetted up on Friday. His reaction to the Senegal defeat was pretty harsh. The main problem: Rivaldo Coetzee’s sudden appearance in the U23 ranks.

The Ajax Cape Town youngster was not involved in any of the build-up, but was drafted straight in to the side despite arriving a day late because he lost his passport. His presence appeared to disrupt a settled defence and encourage those who feel agent Tim Sukazi’s men are always given preference in South African football affairs.

Coach Owen da Gama, apparently appointed by Shakes Mashaba without SAFA’s technical team discussing the role, said: “Some players did not pitch up which had a massive influence on the game and impacted on the rest of the team.”

Hardly encouraging for the former Platinum Stars coach, a known Sukazi man. Personally, I’d like to see a top young PSL coach given the U23 job. Da Gama seemed to just assume the mantle, like inexperienced Thabo Senong with the U20s.

But Owen can still bounce back in Senegal: “We take the loss as a team, just like we have taken wins as a team. What we don’t need now is the blame game or finger pointing. It just wasn’t our day.”

It wasn’t Tinkler’s day on Sunday either. Defeat means Pirates take the R6m runners-up cheque from CAF but that’s the only good news.

Currently 11th in the PSL, Tinkler will be under huge pressure when Pirates resume their league campaign against Mamelodi Sundowns on December 20.

That’s a long way off, time enough for Dr Irvin Khoza to consider his coach’s position. And with Pitso Mosimane’s Masandawana on a strong run, hardly the game Tinkler and his Buccaneers would have chosen to begin their domestic resurrection.

The truth is Jordaan’s optimism is misplaced. South African football is struggling. The crunch, fortunately, is a few months away. In late March 2016, Shakes Mashaba’s Bafana have to play Cameroon home and away.

The opening 0-0 home draw against tiny Gambia and a shocking 3-1 defeat in Mauritania see South Africa bottom of group M in qualifying for Gabon next year. They already trail Cameroon by five points and only the top side goes through, along with the best runner-up from 13 groups.

Anything less than two wins over the Indomitable Lions will leave Mashaba in serious jeopardy. That might be the time for Jordaan and his clandestine technical committee to ring the changes before the CAF World Cup group draw in June. 

Games don’t start until October, so the new coach - hopefully with new assistants - will have nearly seven months to settle in. Or we can stick with what we’ve got. Let’s see how we deal with those lions. Now... relax for four months.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

SUPER SATURDAY: own goals, injury time, four goal sprees and angry Tunisians

REFFING HELL! Sahel players at work
on Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe
FOOTBALL. It’s a silly old game. Saturday was an absolute extravaganza of eccentricity. From those mysterious seven minutes of injury time at the Harry Gwala to the demolition of the Estadio Santiago BernabĂ©u.

It doesn’t end there of course. First we saw Manchester United go top of the Premier League thanks to a last-minute own goal scored by Watford’s scorer, then we saw Arsenal fail to go top after a Mikel Arteta own goal and a slapstick Santi Cazorla penalty miss straight out of the Three Stooges.

Let’s stick to the British Premier League for a moment for the sake of the ridiculous: Leicester City, more of a rugby town for decades, are top because Liverpool were, for the first time under Jurgen Klopp, too good. Manchester City inexplicably folded 4-1 against the mid-table Merseysiders.

And how about the irony of the Reds’ former Champions League winner Rafa Benitez being in charge of Real on a night of absolute El Clasico misery? Barca’s 4-0 win, with goals from Luis Suarez (two), Neymar and Andres Iniesta was achieved with the great Lionel Messi, back from injury, largely on the bench. And even with his cushion, he was better than his arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

Back home, it was almost impossible to keep up. Gavin Hunt’s PSL leaders Bidvest Wits were all at sea against Serame Letsoake’s Golden Arrows. Yes, they utterly outplayed the visitors but couldn’t get past Namibian goalkeeper Maximilian Mbaeva.

At half-time I exchanged rare messages with PSL communication director Luxolo September. We agreed it was a superb first half with Arrows 1-0 up.

But in what turned out to be perhaps the game of the season so far, Bidvest Wits equalised through 18-year-old Phakamani Mhlambi only to go behind again.

And then came real drama. Mbaeva was sent off, rightly, for a handball outside the box. With Ricardo Goss still warming his gloves, Daine Klate smacked his free-kick, not for the first time, straight in to the corner for 2-2.

And within minutes Klate, 30, let go by Orlando Pirates and SuperSport United in recent seasons, conjured the winner to go top of the PSL scoring charts and make clear his intention to add a SIXTH championship medal to the record FIVE he had already garnered at Supersport and Pirates.

Hunt was hilarious afterwards. Six points clear at the top of the PSL, he moaned: “This is what always happens after an international break. The players are away, eating too much and lazing around, they come back here and they’re sluggish.”

Bloody hell, Gavin, SLUGGISH? It was magnificent.

It was Kaizer Chiefs who appeared to have a real problem with sluggishness, falling behind to rock-bottom Maritzburg United and never really looking like recovering. While Steve Komphela looked increasingly crest-fallen, Clive Barker, at 72, appeared to have out-thought and out-fought the mighty AmaKhosi in front of a sell-out crowd at the Harry Gwala.

But then up goes the injury-time board: SEVEN MINUTES. Gasps all round. And what happens with the final touch of the game? Chiefs equalise. Injustice. Utterly unfair. The Dog’s tail should have been wagging.

But before we could even react to that salvage operation, with El Clasico and Liverpool rampaging on nearby channels, Orlando Pirates were up and ready to play the first leg of their CAF Confederations Cup final first leg in front of a nearly full Orlando Stadium.

ES Sahel, from the Tunisia holiday resort of Sousse where 38 tourists were shot in June, have won just about everything there is to win in Africa. But they looked out of sorts in the final footballing saga on Saturday night.

Tamsanqa Gabuza produced a remarkable left-footed first half finish to give Eric Tinkler’s men the advantage and really, the visitors - who arrived by charter flight on Wednesday and barely spoke to a soul - were anything but classy. Their treatment of the officials - at one point they shoved a man-handled the Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe - was matched only by their failure to pick up the mood of the evening.

On both Jacaranda FM and SAFM I predicted a two-goal margin for Pirates. After all, Etoile du Sahel had failed to beat anybody away from home in the entire tournament apart from Esperance, about 130km down the road. A late equaliser ruined the night. Jemal was the fox in the box. It was a night of poor replays, so I can't say if it was off-side. The Pirates players certainly called for it.

Ultimately, it ended 1-1. Job undone by a late away goal. The second leg will be a struggle next week, but they have a fighting chance, these Buccaneers.

Tinkler said: "It was exactly what we expected. A good team defensively, but we could have come in at half-time 2-0 up. It was a gutsy performance. We let ourselves down in the dying minutes.

"I thought their behaviour was shocking. Should have had some red cards. And that includes the guys on their bench."

Can we predict the outcome in Sousse? Hardly. Who would have predicted Barcelona and Liverpool scoring four away from home? Who would have foreseen the own goals at Manchester United and Arsenal?

Best just let it unfold. It's a funny old game.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

GOING TO POT: how the CAF World Cup qualifiers should pan out. And why the groups are so tough this time

Headed for 2018: Russian World Cup is heading our way

FROM dramatic comebacks to routine hammerings, the last round of CAF World Cup qualifiers eventually threw up the usual suspects for the group stages in the battle to qualify for Russia 2018.

Giant-threatening Botswana and Swaziland came close, but eventually Mali and Nigeria asserted their second leg dominance. Algeria destroyed Tanzania 7-0 and South Africa... well they did what was needed against Angola. Job done. Home and away. 

If Angola, ranked 99, had made it, they would have been second only to Libya as the lowest ranked side through to the group stages.

Though widely maligned, the FIFA rankings have got it nearly spot on with 18 of the best ranked nations making it - Equatorial Guinea (15) and Liberia (20) were the exceptions.

Only Burkina Faso and Libya managed to reach next year's draw (June 24, 2016) for those final five groups of four from outside the continent's top 20 ranked nations.

Based on current FIFA rankings, this is how the seeded pots would look, though things may change before the draw next June. One side from each pot will be drawn in each group, giving us FIVE groups. In 2014 qualifying, CAF opted for FORTY teams in 10 groups with play-off AFTER the group stages.

I've listed the 20 nations with CAF ranking first, FIFA ranking in brackets:

POT 1 (Africa's top five all made it):
1 Cote D'Ivoire (22)
2 Algeria (26)
3 Ghana (30)
4 Cape Verde Islands (32)
5 Senegal (39)
POT 2 (Africa's top ten all made it)
6 Tunisia (41)
7 Cameroon (51)
8 Congo (52)
9 Guinea (53)
10 DRC (55)

POT 3 (Missing: Equatorial Guinea, 69)
11 Egypt (57)
12 Nigeria (59)
13 Mali (63)
14 Uganda (68)
16 Zambia (71)
POT 4 (Effectively, the outsiders)
17 Gabon (73)
18 South Africa (75)
19 Morocco (79)
22 Burkina Faso (93)
33 Libya (113)

So from here, we can work out probable best and worst case scenarios for our beloved Bafana Bafana, who - thanks to the charitable Angolans - have given national head coach Shakes Mashaba his first competitive wins THIS YEAR. Since the draw against Nigeria in the final qualifier for AFCON 2015 where Mashaba reigned unbeaten, this is the problem:

LOST 1-3 to Algeria (AFCON 2015)
DREW 1-1 with Senegal (AFCON 2015)
LOST 1-2 to Ghana (AFCON2015)
LOST to Botswana (penalty shoot-out after 0-0 draw, COSAFA Cup)
LOST to Malawi (penalty shoot-out after 0-0 draw, COSAFA Cup)
DREW 0-0 with Gambia (AFCON 2017 qualifying)
LOST 1-3 to Mauritania (AFCON 2017 qualifying)

With Cameroon home and away to come next March, our AFCON 2017 qualifying hopes look grim. Without six points from those two games, Group M could be a hopeless cause for Shaky. Here's the current table: 


1 Cameroon 2 2 0 0 2 0 2 6

2 Mauritania 2 1 0 1 3 2 1 3

3 Gambia 2 0 1 1 0 1 -1 1

4 South Africa 2 0 1 1 1 3 -2 1

Given this sort of form, none of the options are going to be easy, believe me. In nine competitive games this year (we won't include home-based CHAN, where we were knocked out by Angola last month) Bafana have only managed those two wins against Angola.

The toughest possible group for Bafana Bafana would consist of Afcon champs Ivory Coast (ranked above Algeria), Tunisia and Egypt. Many would argue Algeria, with just two of their squad not born and groomed in France, would be a better option than Cote d'Ivoire

The best possible grouping for Mashaba, but by no means easy, would be: Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. All six group qualifiers will take place between October 2016 and November 2017. We have time to prepare.

There is no easy march to Russia. Napoleon Bonaparte realised that 200 years ago. But for African football, with only five nations qualifying from 53, it's as tough as it ever was.