Editor's Blog 8.11.2016 12:02 pm

Can history repeat itself in Polokwane?

Bafana Bafana training at Marks Park. (Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix)

Bafana Bafana training at Marks Park. (Pic Sydney Mahlangu/ BackpagePix)

I had the privilege of being in the old Peter Mokaba Stadium in 2003, when a young Didier Drogba left the field in an extremely grumpy mood, as Shakes Mashaba’s Bafana Bafana vanquished a star-studded Ivory Coast to take a giant leap down the road to the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia.

Shaun Bartlett and Siyabonga Nomvethe (remember those halcyon days, when Bafana had top class strikers?) got the goals, with Bonaventure Kalou responding for the Elephants.

13 years on, sadly, that remains a rare glorious moment in my time covering the South African national football team. Bafana Bafana have hosted a World Cup, for which they built a spectacular new Peter Mokaba Stadium, but their performances have plummeted a long way below world class.

Perhaps memories of 2003 are why Safa chose Polokwane again, as Bafana Bafana face another top West African side on Saturday, in the form of Senegal.

The stakes are higher, with a race on for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

Shakes Mashaba, as chance would have it, is the man leading Bafana again, against another side crammed with overseas-based talent. Mashaba will hope this time it is Liverpool’s Sadio Mane who is the opposition’s star striker dragging himself disconsolately from the field.

The chance of that is minimal. Bafana have, for the most part, staggered around aimlessly in recent years. In fact, after a trawl through the statistics and my admittedly sketchy memory, I cannot find a game, since that win over the Ivorians, in which South Africa have beaten top class opposition from West Africa in a competitive game. Mashaba did manage two draws against Nigeria in qualifying the side for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations finals.

He also drew with Senegal at the finals in Equatorial Guinea. But a draw will not really do Bafana in Polokwane. Only the group winners in African qualification will go to Russia and winning your home games has to be a priority, especially after Bafana drew their first game against Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou.

Senegal are a side brimming with top class players, and more importantly seem to be on a roll under Aliou Cisse, winning all their games en route to qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, following that up with an opening World Cup qualifying win at home to Cape Verde.

In defence, there is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, a man who Chelsea were trying to throw millions at in the last transfer window.

In midfield, Cisse can call on the power of captain Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham United and Everton’s Idrissa Gueye, badly missed by the Toffees in their 5-0 hammering by Chelsea on Saturday. And up front, there is Mane – in fact Senegal are confident enough in their attacking talent that they even left Moussa Sow at home, the man who scored that ridiculous overhead kick against Man United in the Europa League the other day.

South Africa, meanwhile, have been trawling the family trees looking for goalscorers and have landed on Lars Veldwijk, a man who did well in the Dutch Eredivisie last season, but does not have much form at all in the new campaign.

I cannot blame Mashaba for taking a gamble on Veldwijk – it is not as if there are an abundance of free-scoring South African strikers in the PSL. Maybe it will work, but the more likely scenario is that Senegal will put another dent in Bafana and possibly end Mashaba’s time in charge.