Wu Tang Clan said it best in the lyrics to their song Triumph – “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat”. This pretty much sums up a roller-coaster sporting weekend for the long suffering South African supporter.
In the case of both the national football and rugby teams, attention moved swiftly from the result at the end of the game, from the disappointment and anguish, to that perennial question – who is to blame?
The Mbombela Mix up
It all looked so promising on Saturday morning. The national football team, Bafana Bafana, were playing Sierra Leone at the Mbombela stadium in Nelspruit in their final group match for the AFCON qualifiers. The perceived wisdom at the time was that Bafana needed a draw or a win against their West African opponents and also required a helping hand from the Egyptian U23 team who were in action against table-topping Niger. There was nothing but pride to play for from the Egyptian point of view as they were not in contention to qualify.
Going into the match Niger were on 9 points, with Bafana and Sierra Leone both on 8 points. Egypt duly did their bit and defeated Niger 3-0. South Africa battled against Sierra Leone but were unable to breach their defence and the game ended in a 0-0 draw.
Cue the Bafana Bafana confusion.
The Bafana Bafana players proceeded to put on their best performance after the final whistle as they gyrated and pranced around the pitch believing they had qualified for the AFCON. Messages were erroneously circulated on Twitter and Facebook stating that South Africa had qualified. A couple of people then started posting updates from a BBC website link quoting that Niger had qualified.
All three teams were now level on 9 points and South Africa had the better goal difference. However, CAF rules state that in the event that two or more teams are level on points, the qualification goes to the team with the better head-to-head record between the concerned teams. In this case, Niger had qualified by virtue of the better head-to-head record.
The massive disappointment of the players, coaching staff and many supporters should not, however, attempt to disguise the fact that Bafana Bafana have now failed to qualify for the continent’s football show piece for the second time in a row. The fact that South Africa went into their last game needing a result and also relying on other teams to help them through speaks volumes about how low the national football team has sunk over the years.
Once the dust had settled following confirmation that Bafana were not going to AFCON, it was time to start pointing fingers. Why were the management and coaching staff not aware of the qualification criteria? The information was available on Wikipedia for any interested parties. How was something so crucial was ignored to the extent the players felt they were able to celebrate with such certainty? Surely coach Pitso Mosimane has to carry the can for this failure and it must be time to bring in yet another foreign coach to be paid a fortune?
From my perspective, the problem dates back to a previously identified problem which continues to plague Bafana Bafana to the present. In six group games, Bafana scored a grand total of 4 goals which was the lowest “goals for” out of all four teams. Included in the six group games are three goalless draws. Although South Africa also had the most miserly defence with a mere two goals conceded, a team cannot be expected to qualify or progress in any tournament if they are unable to score goals.
Perhaps the players should have focussed an equal amount of energy in trying to score goals as they obviously put into learning their dance routine and there wouldn’t be a need for a scapegoat?
The New Zealand Adventure
I’ll admit that I was one of those who wrote off the Boks’ chances prior to the start of the Rugby World Cup. The principal argument being that they were over the hill and that they were a yard off the pace heading into the tournament. The first game against Wales appeared to add weight to this initial diagnosis as the Boks were slow and ponderous and lucky to escape with a narrow victory.
However, that game seemed to galvanise the Springboks and they cruised through the rest of their group games relatively easily with the exception of the Samoa game, which was intensely physical and the Boks appeared short of invention at times. Finishing top of the group meant that South Africa headed into a quarter final match against the Australians who had conspired to finish second in their group.
The Springbok team that showed up for the quarter final was a team that deserved a semi final spot. Gone was the lethargic team from the Wales game and in its stead was a team full of running and invention, frequently bringing in their back line players and not kicking possession away willy nilly.
Unfortunately, the Boks v Wallabies game will probably be best remembered for two major talking points.
The first point was the manner in which the Boks completely and utterly dominated every aspect of the game and yet failed to score a try or to win the game.
The second point, and crucially from a Springbok perspective, was the inconsistent application of refereeing laws by New Zealand official Bryce Lawrence.
ESPN Films has produced an excellent documentary called “Catching Hell”. The documentary tried to investigate the reasons why fans of the Chicago Cubs baseball team placed the blame for the team’s failure to progress to baseball’s World Series finals in 2003 on Cubs fan Steve Bartman. Although there were other events that could possibly explain the way the Cubs imploded, the documentary reveals how fans and the media alike made Bartman the sole scapegoat. In short, the Chicago Cubs fans and the media were able to transfer all of the disappointment and anger at the team’s failure at the feet of Steve Bartman.
There are a couple of scapegoats who will be in the media’s firing line following the Boks’ exit from the Rugby World Cup.
The easiest one to blame is naturally New Zealand referee, Bryce Lawrence. Don’t get me wrong, I think Lawrence’s performance was what my younger brother would refer to as “a throbber” or “a mare”. His officiating was very inconsistent, especially with regards to the interpretation of the breakdown laws. Naturally, South Africans will be quick to jump on the Antipodean bandwagon and claim this is all part of a conspiracy to ensure that either the All Blacks or the Wallabies made it to the final.
Peter de Villiers ordinarily would have been the primary scapegoat, but he has managed to escape this hell due to Lawrence’s heroics. Question marks over the team selection combined with his well-known propensity for “foot in mouth” quotes during his tenure meant that the knives had been out for P.Divvy long before the start of the tournament. Once the furore over Bryce Lawrence has abated somewhat, the focus will swiftly return to P.Divvy.
In my humble opinion, the problem is not entirely with the scapegoats above but rather with the statistics at the end of the game. In the first half alone, the Boks had 84% of the territory and 55% of the possession but conspired to head into the break trailing 3-8. South Africa had approximately 76% of the territory in the game and forced Australia to make 147 tackles compared to the Boks’ 53 tackles. South Africa should rue their mistakes in potential try-scoring situations brought about by the Australian pressure, combined with their 11 handling errors.
In short South Africa had their chances but failed to take them. That is the only scapegoat that people should be looking at.