South Africa's penalty king set for Rio dream
Although Jody February goes to lengths to explain that he is no hero, tens of thousands of South African football fans would beg to differ. After all, it was the young goalkeeper who proved the match winner as his side qualified for this year's Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
Having lost the semi-finals of the CAF Africa U-23 Cup of Nations to Algeria, the Amaglug-glug had one last opportunity to book their ticket to Rio 2016, but to make it to South America, the team needed to beat hosts Senegal in a play-off. Having already lost 3-1 to the west Africans in the tournament's opening match, it was always going to be a tough ask of the South Africans. And with 15 minutes to go in the scoreless affair, their fate seemed sealed as Senegal were awarded a penalty.
However, February managed to save, and as neither side scored in the remaining time, the match had to be decided on penalties. Again, February came up huge, saving three of the hosts' four penalties to claim the third-place spot and a ticket to Rio. Only 19 at the time, February downplayed his achievements to FIFA.com. “Of course I can understand that people think I was the hero, but it was really a team effort. It was the whole team that got us to the play-offs. Yes, maybe I saved the decisive penalties, but we really did it together.”
The goalkeeper, who plays his club football for Ajax Cape Town, admits that qualifying for Rio had not been easy. “Of course we were confident when we arrived in Senegal for the tournament, and we believed in our chances, but then we lost the first game . And it was not only losing it, but also the way we lost. We were never really in the match and were down by two after less than 15 minutes. We then knew that we would have to be at our very best in our next games.”
Forced to improve quickly, the South Africans came from behind to beat Zambia 3-2 in their second match and then beat Tunisia in a winner-take-all game thanks to a dramatic late winner from Menzi Masuku. A 2-0 loss to Algeria in the last four meant the Amaglug-glug had to beat the hosts in Dakar, but February and his team came up big in the shoot-out. “Playing at the Olympics is really a dream come true,” he said about the qualification. “I think next to the World Cup it is the biggest tournament that a player can play at and if I make the squad and then have an opportunity to play it will be the highlight of my career so far.”
**To Brazil and beyond
**South Africa, whose women's team have also qualified for the Olympics, have been drawn into a tough group with Brazil, Iraq and Denmark, and they will have the honour of facing the hosts in the tournament's opener. “I am sure it will be a very difficult match but all teams that have qualified for the Olympics are strong, so whomever we will face will be tough," February explained. "Having said that, Brazil will no doubt use some of their top international stars as their over-age players, so we could be facing some big names."
His achievements with the South African Olympic team have allowed February to grow in confidence and he would seem to have a bright future ahead. Although made his debut for his club's first team at the beginning of last year, he has yet to command a regular place. “I do think I am ready and whenever I have been called up to play I have been there and I have been able to help the club. Now I am looking forward to playing at the Olympics and then I will see what happens after that.
February, who lives at home with his parents and has decided to concentrate fully on his football career at the moment, admits that he has big ambitions for his career. “Most players in South Africa dream of playing in Europe and playing at the Olympics will certainly allow me to showcase my ability."”
Earlier this year, February travelled to the Netherlands with the U-19 team to participate in an international tournament and although teams like Barcelona, Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven participated, the South Africans won – beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the final. And if he manages similar heroics as those that took Amaglug-glug to the Olympics in the first place, it could well be that yet another dream will come true for the reluctant hero.