Santana: We are on track
South Africa coach Joel Santana has insisted that his side's preparations for the FIFA Confederations Cup are firmly on track. The hosts open their campaign on 14 June against Asian champions Iraq at Johannesburg‘s Ellis Park in the opening act of the eagerly-awaited tournament.
There is cautious optimism in South Africa about the national side's prospects of emerging triumphant from this prestigious competition. Indeed, it is this optimism, born out of a sheer desire to see team pulling off a major coup, that has prompted a swift change in both the attitude and fortunes of the players as they approach a fragile stage in their much-talked about redemption.
Doubters remain, but Santana knows that this is a moment for Bafana Bafana to believe in themselves and turn their critics into admirers. The plan is seemingly coming together nicely and, after five back-to-back victories against some dominant names on African football including Ghana and Cameroon, the morale in the South African camp is at an all time high.
Santana has also been dropping hints on the names likely to form the spine of his team for the FIFA Confederations Cup, although he has been keen to stress that there remains time for outsiders to emerge before the big kick-off. Speaking to FIFA.com, he said: "At this stage, I can say I have about 70 to 80 per cent of the players I will use during the tournament. But the door is still open for other players. All the players have a chance to be part of the squad, there is still time. We need a big pool to choose from because when you have options, you can always plan around every situation. We don't want to be caught in a situation whereby when injuries strike, you are helpless and unable to cope."
What will be comforting for Santana is the return to form of the country's all-time top goalscorer and prodigal star, Benni McCarthy, who has been a regular scorer for his English club, Blackburn Rovers. "Benni is an important member of this team, he is an experienced player," said Santana. "He has been playing in Europe for many years and yes, it's good to see him doing well. It's good for South Africa, it's good for the team."
Most, however, now feel that South Africa's hopes will rest largely on the country's new superstar, Teko Modise, who has been Bafana Bafana's standout performer in their past few games. Modise, together with on-song Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar, will be operating the team's engine room. Yet defence remains South Africa's Achilles' heel. Santana has been flirting with a number of combinations at the back, but problems persist.
Brave decisions will need to be taken in selecting the central pair, the contenders for which include captain Aaron Mokoena, Nasief Morris, Matthew Booth, Bongani Khumalo and Jeffrey Ntuka. Ntuka, in particular, would have been a likely candidate, but the former Chelsea defender has spent the better part of the last 12 months in the doctor's room.
Booth, on the other hand, has earned positive reviews since his arrival on the scene. But what does Santana do with his most trusted and long-serving stewards Mokoena and Morris? "I don't want to worry about selection yet," he said. "At the moment the priority is to build a team, a big squad with players who are all capable of defending their own country. We have to work as a team and not worry about individuals."
His side's journey to redemption has been long and at times painful, but the players and backroom staff are aware that a sterling performance in June can undo all the recent wrongs in South African football. Santana, the architect appointed to craft South Africa's dream, is aware that Bafana Bafana's performance at the FIFA Confederations Cup will be used as a yardstick for expectations ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, a situation that makes success in June all the more important. "The team, the players and everyone is aware of what is at stake," Santana insisted. "That makes the coach's job easy because you don't have to repeat the same thing."