South Africa’s under-23 soccer team paints a bleak future following the country’s historic Olympic exit.

The South African men’s soccer team set a new and unflattering personal record by failing to earn a single point in the Olympic football tournament’s group stage.

South African football’s future is bleak. For the first time in the country’s history of competing in the Olympics’ under-23 football tournament, the country was eliminated from the group stage without accumulating a single point. This comes after a humiliating 3-1 loss to Mexico in their final group game at Tokyo 2020.

They had previously earned three group stage points in Sydney in 2000 and two in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. They did not qualify for the Games in other years.

Dust ourselves off

Goals from Alexis Vega and Luis Romo in the 18th and 43rd minutes respectively, and a third by Henry Martin on the hour mark, saw Mexico qualify for the knockout stages, second on the log standings as hosts Japan, who beat France 4-0, qualified as group winners after winning all of their three matches.

“We have to dust ourselves off and face the South African public for having disappointed them in terms of their expectations of us. It comes with the game. So, we have to show a lot of emotional intelligence, emotional maturity, and of course be accountable for the results we faced here in Tokyo,” said coach David Notoane after their elimination.

“Hopefully the boys will graduate and take this experience into Bafana Bafana, as we strive to make Bafana a better team in the future.”

After being defeated 1-0 by Japan in their first game, the South Africans went on to lose 4-3 to France. It was a game they should have won after taking the lead three times, only for the Europeans to equalise each time before scoring the game-winning goal in extra time. The final 30 minutes of the game saw all seven goals scored.

The match against France also best exemplified some of South African football’s flaws. It was an example of unrealised potential. Despite their ability to score goals thanks to some exciting forwards and midfield play, they were caught off guard by the four French goals in that game.

 

“Difficult evening. Not much in the legs of the boys,” said Notoane, reacting after the trouncing at the hands of the Mexicans.

The France game, he said, “took a lot out of us, and it showed today. Overall, we’re disappointed to be out of the tournament. I think we can take a lot of lessons out of this tournament going forward, in terms of how mistakes are punished at this level.”

The Bafana factor

Hugo Broos, the coach of Bafana Bafana, will be left perplexed by the football team’s performances at the Olympics, particularly at the back.

The Belgian has stated that one of the most pressing issues he will seek to address as he attempts to rejuvenate and re-energize an ailing Bafana Bafana side is South Africa’s leaky defence.

Broos, who was appointed by the South African Football Association (Safa) in the aftermath of South Africa’s failure to qualify for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), previously stated of Bafana’s defensive deficiencies:

“There were some things that for me were a bit surprising. For example, in the games for Afcon [qualification] I saw that it was very difficult for the team not to concede a goal… This is something we have to work on.”

Notoane’s side conceded eight times across their three Group A games, with some of the players in that frail defence expected to be genuine contenders for spots in the Bafana side in the near future.

Even more worryingly, one of the over-age players selected by Notoane to lead the young side was Ronwen Williams.

The 29-year-old is Bafana’s number one goalkeeper at the moment, and his presence and experience were supposed to ease whatever global stage jitters might have gripped his less experienced teammates.

It backfired, with lack of communication and organisation at the back costing the South Africans on numerous occasions. Williams was at the centre of all of that, playing all three games.

“Against France, it’s one of the things that was clear. Lack of leadership at the back, lack of communication at the back, and the midfield,” said Notoane on SABC radio.

Williams’ performances will worry Broos, especially since South African goalkeeping legend Itumeleng Khune is still good enough to compete for a spot in the national team but is plagued by injuries.

The Bafana Bafana coach is still in Belgium after returning home for a second Covid-19 test. The Olympics provided him with an opportunity to see who he could add to his arsenal as the qualifiers for the 2022 Fifa World Cup approached.

South Africa will play Zimbabwe away and Ghana at home in its first two qualifiers in early September. Ethiopia is also a member of their organisation.

 

Mitigating factors

The team’s preparations for the tournament were far from smooth sailing.

The side was meant to participate in a preparation tournament in the United Arab Emirates, a mini-tournament that was supposed to include Brazil‚ South Korea and Argentina. Covid-19-related travel restrictions denied them the chance to partake in the tournament.

Safa moved quickly to set up two friendly matches with African champions Egypt. SA lost both friendlies there, conceding five goals while scoring none. It foreshadowed the defensive flaws that were cruelly exposed in Tokyo.

Notoane’s team was also dealt a major blow when five players withdrew for various medical reasons just a few weeks before their trip to Tokyo.

When the squad arrived in Tokyo and took the mandatory Covid-19 tests, two players in the squad tested positive: Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi.

The team was then forced to quarantine and was only allowed to train for a few days before facing Japan in the first game.

“Preparation is very important. Not an excuse. But the fact of the matter is, if you look at the number of international friendlies we played compared to our opposition, you could see that our team lacked that cutting edge in preparation for this tournament … for various reasons. But no excuses there. We could have done better,” said Notoane.

It is unclear whether Notoane will remain at the helm in future. He has been in charge since 2019. More importantly for the South African football faithful, his graduates don’t inspire hope for a successful Bafana in the near future.

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