AFCON 2013 – South Africa v Mali – Hosts must avoid physical confrontation

South Africa have been far from the most convincing team at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Indeed, after a group stage that saw Bafana Bafana mix the brilliant, with their comfortable 2-0 victory over Angola and late comeback against Morocco, with the turgid opening goalless draw Cape Verde, it is hard to know what to expect from Gordon Igesund’s team as they prepare to take on Mali in Durban for a place in the semi-finals for the first time since 2000.

The disappointing clash against the tournament minnows – though they would join the South Africans in qualifying for the latter stages – showcased South African football at its worst: nervous, uninspired and almost Neanderthal in the way the ball was lumped forward in hopeless fashion. The hosts may not exactly have the traditions of Barcelona-style football but the philosophy has always been one based on possession play, exuberance and ingenuity in terms of creating chances. South Africa may not produce Iniestas and Xavis but they certainly do not produce the kind of players able to effectively carry out a long-ball game-plan.

Certainly, if the hosts approach their quarter-final with Mali in anywhere near the same capacity, they will run a serious risk of exiting the tournament with a whimper. The Eagles might not win any points for style but led by former Barcelona midfielder Seydou Keita, Patrice Carteron’s side have been near impenetrable at the back, conceding only three goals, two of those penalties.

Going forward, one could hardly describe them as free-flowing but with Keita and QPR’s Samba Diakite forming a solid midfield base, supplemented by their giant defenders, any high balls from the South Africans would be easily dealt with by the West Africans. Similarly, the hosts must not allow their opponents to impose their physicality onto proceedings as, while Igesund’s men can hardly be described as timid, there is a clear difference in physical size and strength between the two sets of players.

Simply, if South Africa are to progress into what would be a challenging semi-final against either tournament favourites Ivory Coast or Nigeria, they must not be afraid to play their passing game. Given Mali’s physicality in the middle of the mark, South Africa’s diminutive playmakers and attackers could find themselves using the long ball in order to bypass the likes of Keita and Diakite, too intimidated to trust their own abilities with the ball.

Such tactics would represent virtual suicide for the hosts and ultimately is likely to lead to Mali taking their place in the semi-finals for the fifth time. Rather, South Africa must use the fervent home support and retain the confidence to pass and probe, dragging the Malians out of position and into areas where their physicality matters less. Although obviously on a different level, the likes of Spain and Barcelona have shown that by passing the ball cleverly and quickly, physically superior teams can be bypassed and victory can be achieved.

Of course, no one is suggesting that South Africa produce a performance from the playbook of Pep Guardiola, but the hosts’ continued presence in the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations could ultimately depend on their confidence, security and precision in possession of the football.

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