Bafana Bafana are out of the African Cup of Nations. Confronting that fact doesn’t feel all that difficult.
Maybe that’s because it didn’t take Nigeria long to remind us of what we chose to bury: this whole knockout round adventure was a bonus period. Time given to us by the football Gods to figure out just who the hell we are.
It turns out South Africa are awfully reactive. That of course is the opposite of being “proactive” – the art of getting your tactical brain off its ass and forcing it to come up with a strategy to win a football match on its own steam.
When Bafana entered Cairo International Stadium for the first half, it seemed as though they had slept through Stuart Baxter’s pre-match briefing. Either that or the Scot decided to say little but instead dole out his trusty “give the ball to Percy” shtick.
No invention. No imagination. Every possession won was passed straight onto Tau in an irrational hope that he might pluck gold from thin air.
Here’s the issue: West African players tend to be strong and fast. When the ball is played into the space in front of Tau, his opponent, unless on the back foot, need only stand in front of the diminutive attacker to snuff out any opportunity. This is physics, there are books about it and everything.
It took only 15 minutes for penance to arrive at the other end. Alex Iwobi’s change of pace got him to the byline — exposing what had been overly static defending. His cutback found Samuel Chukwueze and the young forward bundled it home.
When the first half whistle went it came at the mercy of everyone in the stadium.
The second period brought welcome from all on the pitch. It also saw the introduction of a South African midfield. Dean Furman and Bongani Zungu now took the time to look up and find a pass. With Lebo Mothiba providing the sounding board up from where they even managed to string together a few triangles.
The play could’ve been better but it was something and the initiative was there. Something Zungu capatilised on with his looping header to make it 1-1.
What a difference a goal can make to one’s confidence. For much of the next 20 minutes Bafana played with shades of confidence that had seen them become host killers in the previous round. It even seemed reasonable to dream that it may be them that found a winner instead of the Super Eagles.
That of course was not to be. William Troost-Ekong was the lucky beneficiary after Ronwen Williams had missed his punch during a last-minute corner.
As with any late blow the result felt unfair and cruel in the moment. The truth is, if we’re honest with ourselves, the Nigerians never looked overly uncomfortable. A large part of the reason why is Bafana played to their strengths: forcing 50-50s instead of finding the easy ball. A real chance of progression arguably would have been created by taking the game to them. Sure, easier said than done, but an attempt would have gone down far better than the isolated few chances we saw in Cairo on this evening.