The South Africans started their training camp in Johannesburg on Friday, 2 January and then played Zambia in a warm-up match, winning 1-0. Bafana Bafana then moved to Libreville, Gabon on Wednesday, 7 January where they played two matches. Shakes Mashaba’s boys held the much-fancied Cameroon to a 1-1 draw (Saturday, 10 January) before rounding off preparations with an emphatic 3-0 victory over Mali on Wednesday, 14 January at Stade Monedan in Libreville, Gabon.
Mashaba spoke to SAFA.net about the squad preparations:
Q: What are your thoughts on the match against Mali?
A: It was a balanced match. What we are happy about is that our boys stuck to the game plan which was not to allow Mali to play behind us, allow them as much possession as possible in their own half, but as soon as we get the ball use our pace going forward. Fortunately, we had an early goal through a set-piece which gave us an early advantage.
At half-time we urged our players to keep possession as the Malians looked tired. We didn’t play long balls because Malians are good in the air and we made them look sluggish. We advised the boys to take them on in one on one situations. We should have scored another six goals in this match, unfortunately it was not our day but we are happy with the three goals.
Q: Is the team (Bafana Bafana) now ready for the tournament?
A: I think we are and looking forward to the start of the tournament. We are happy with the preparations, especially in matches against Cameroon and Mali. We now know what we are going to face in Equatorial Guinea, and yes it is going to be tougher than this. But I would like to say to our boys, job well done. Mali had almost all their players from abroad which is clear indication that it was not an easy game.
Q: You made six changes for the Mali match, but despite that the boys still managed a good win. What does it say about your team?
A: I am happy about that. It says those players on the bench know what is expected of them. When you work with a group of players and others sitting on the bench you would expect them to encounter problems when coming on but it was not the case with my team. If you look at (Sibusiso) Vilakazi, most of the time he starts on the bench but today he started and gave us some stability upfront.
The only thing is that (Bongani) Ndulula was not that sharp, he was more rooted than running on and off the ball. We could have killed the Malians. In the middle of the park Andile Jali and Dean Furman did very well, what can I say about Mandla Masango? Thuso Phala as well, even though he started playing well very late, he should have scored at least two goals. When he started playing his game he showed the opposition that they can’t match his pace and that is exactly what we were looking for from our boys. Now we have the confidence going to AFCON.
Q: The team didn’t seem bothered by the heat, have they acclimatised?
A: I want to say to people, it’s not only us who are playing in that heat, even Mali was affected. So it is affecting all of us including the subs and the match officials. I would worry if it (heat) was directed at us only. I am just happy with the way the players handled the situation. They deserve a pat on the back.
Q: How confident are you about the tournament following the win against Mali?
A: Well, we are comfortable. The more you win, the more enemies you create for yourself and I can tell you now that in the AFCON we will give a good account of ourselves. When we started nobody gave us a chance, now people are starting to raise eyebrows and asking who are these ones coming from the South Africa? But they will know when we play them. If you look at Mali, they have some of the best international players, but my boys made it look very simple. I think we are doing well. So far so good.
Q: Played Zambia, Cameroon and Mali – all using different styles and approaches – what have you learnt going into AFCON?
A: Some things happen unaware and automatically. If you look at the teams in our group - Algeria, Ghana and Senegal – they have three different styles and approaches; so these games have helped us focus on what to expect, not always focus on one team until you get paralysed. Now we know the boys are prepared to face any game irrespective of the opposition’s approach.
Q: Are you happy the boys are applying what you have been practising at training?
A: What I am happy about is that we scored from a set-piece; it’s been quite a while since we scored from such. The delivery of the ball by Masango was perfect and the header was good. In modern football all set-pieces near your goal should be half a goal.
Then you have “Mr Make It Look Simple” Vilakazi, he killed everyone including the goalkeeper. At some point I thought he was going to miss but when I lifted my head he was already rolling the ball into the net. We need that kind of composure in the box. We also created more chances than them and we could have scored six or so goals. We will work on that.
Q: No loss since returning to Bafana Bafana, more confidence for you?
A: Yes it does, the more you win the more you want to keep that momentum going, and the more confidence the players gain. It also brings awareness that says we can do better than the last game and that gives them the oomph to keep going. But we have proven that in the second half we are dangerous.
Q: Continuously rotating the armband going into AFCON – Ngcongca against Zambia, Furman against Cameroon and Jali against Mali?
A: I have said it before that we want to make leaders in this team and I know it surprised a lot of people when we gave it to Jali, next time there will be a surprise again. This is in line with the SAFA Technical Master Plan where we are developing role models and leaders. And if you look at Jali against Mali he was a different player, he knew his responsibilities because of the armband, he knows that if he doesn’t do well he would have killed his teammates and nobody will have confidence in him.
Q: Gcaba less than 24 hours in camp, but already getting a run?
A: That was a good test for him because we realised this was our last preparation match, we said let’s throw him in and it’s just that he came in when things where going well for the team. We would have loved to see him in a situation where we were maybe were drawing to see how he performs. But I have seen him; he is a strong boy.
SA XI vs Mali Jackson Mabokgwane (GK), Siyabonga Nhlapho (Ayanda Gcaba 68’), Thabo Matlaba, Thulani Hlatshwayo (Eric Mathoho 79’), Anele Ngcongca, Dean Furman, Andile Jali (C), Mandla Masango (Oupa Manyisa 68’), Thuso Phala, Bongani Ndulula (Bongani Zungu 85’), Sibusiso Vilakazi
Subs: Darren Keet (GK), Brilliant Khuzwayo (GK), Ayanda Gcaba, Eric Mathoho, Thamsanqa Sangweni, Themba Zwane, Oupa Manyisa, Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Bongani Zungu, Bernard Parker
Not in match-day squad due to injury: Tokelo Rantie, Rivaldo Coetzee
SA XI vs Cameroon: Brilliant Khuzwayo (GK) (Jackson Mabokgwane), Anele Ngcongca (Siyabonga Nhlapho), Thabo Matlaba, Rivaldo Coetzee, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Dean Furman (c), Andile Jali (Thuso Phala), Oupa Manyisa, Themba Zwane (Mandla Masango), Tokelo Rantie (Bongani Zungu), Bernard Parker (Sibusiso Vilakazi)
Subs: Jackson Mabokgwane (GK), Darren Keet (GK), Eric Mathoho, Siyabonga Nhlapho, Mandla Masango, Thuso Phala, Reneilwe Letsholonyane, Thamsanqa Sangweni, Bongani Zungu, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Bongani Ndulula
Withdrawn from squad due to injury: Patrick Phungwayo (returned home and replaced by Ayanda Gcaba)
SA XI vs Zambia Darren Keet (Brilliant Khuzwayo 62'), Anele Ngcongca (c), Thabo Matlaba (Thulani Hlatshwayo 86'), Eric Mathoho, Rivaldo Coetzee, Thamsanqa Sangweni (Themba Zwane 52'), Reneilwe Letsholonyane (Sibusiso Vilakazi 58'), Mandla Masango (Thuso Phala 74'), Oupa Manyisa, Bongani Ndulula (Bernard Parker 44'), Tokelo Rantie
SA Subs vs Zambia: Brilliant Khuzwayo (GK), Jackson Mabokgwane (GK), Thulani Hlatshwayo, Bongani Zungu, Thuso Phala, Themba Zwane, Bernard Parker, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Siyabonga Nhlapho
Not considered for the match due to injury: Andile Jali, Patrick Phungwayo.