Beautiful, tricksy football is an identity, a reputation, a status, that South Africa football fans hold dear. But at which point does a that reputation become a myth?
“The fans want us to play like Brazil,” one South African journalist told me ahead of Bafana Bafana’s Africa Cup of Nations opener against the Ivory Coast in Cairo.
“They expect us to play like Brazil.”
Their international football cannot be measured by success on the pitch; Bafana only have one Africa Cup of Nations success to their name (1996), while only Orlando Pirates (1995) and Mamelodi Sundowns (2016) have brought home the Caf Champions League.
But to be fair, how could South Africa compare themselves – sportingly – to the continent’s top nations when they weren’t allowed to compete at the Nations Cup until readmission to Caf in 1996, following the fall of the apartheid regime?
It means that the country’s footballing greats – Ace Ntsoelengoe, Jomo Sono, Kaizer Motaung, Steve Mokone – never tested themselves on Africa’s grandest stage.
Instead, South Africans have prided themselves on the footballing flair and flamboyance that has characterised their national game.
I saw it myself, visiting South Africa back in 2006, when during an impromptu kick around in a drained, disused swimming pool, a boy half my age stood on the football mid-dribble, spun around 360 while balancing on the ball, and then sped off away from me.
Another created so much space for himself with a lightning dribble down the flank, that he sat on the ball and waited for me – panting, plodding behind – to catch up, before leaping to his feet, flicking the ball over my head, and carrying on.
It didn’t matter that neither flashy opportunity ultimately led to a goal. These princes of showboating had done their piece, they’d won the adulation of their peers, and that was all that mattered.
Here they were, playing like Brazil… just without the five World Cup titles.
The style of football even got itself a name, a brand, Mzansi football – Kasi Flava – the certain spice, panache, style that prompts an intake of breath with a feint here, a rabona there, and a Shibobo or two to beat your man.
Even after South Africa’s reintegration into the footballing community, these artists remained a regular part of the game. They decreased steadily, as the will to win, as professionalism, as pragmatism ruled, but they still existed.
Just look at Thabo Rakhale, for example, or Scara Ngobese, or Jabu Mahlangu, or Mark Mayambela. Terrace heroes who straddled the present and the past.
However, as Mzansi football faded from the game, so the hope and excitement generated by the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s election, and the 1996 ‘Nation Builders’ Afcon success on home soil faded.
The country’s football identity is bound up – intrinsically – with its national identity; this is the face that South Africa shows to the world, and the nostalgia of the ’90s, the hope of what the Rainbow Nation could have meant – and may still – looms large.
“We have to think about everybody always comparing the team to the 1996 [team],” coach Baxter told journalists ahead of the Morocco game, “but that was a totally different time.
“In 1996, Mandela had just come in with that government‚ and everybody was optimistic. The hopes and the dreams which that team reflected [aren’t the same for] our country at the moment. People aren’t as hopeful.
“We’ve been given the mantle of: ‘Give us hope’, and that’s a heavy burden sometimes.
“The national team is a great passion for everybody. They’re asking us to give them something to be happy about‚” he added.
“Everybody wants that, and when they don’t get it‚ the disappointment comes out in different ways,” the coach continued.
“We’ve had it for a long time in South Africa, it has gradually been building up, so patience is thin now.”
The patience is thin, certainly, but for what exactly? Bafana have hardly underachieved at the 2019 Afcon, at least in terms of results.
They were defeated by an Ivory Coast team full of superstars, but only narrowly, and following an uncharacteristic mistake by Dean Furman in midfield fell to then-favourites Morocco, but only with a 90th-minute winner from Mbark Boussoufa.
The one game they should have won, against Namibia, they did, albeit in not entirely convincingly.
Yet while Bafana might be forgiven for losing with aplomb, for a brave defeat – with an expected flourish – supporters quickly turn against them when the football isn’t exciting and the team shows little of the identity that fans have always expected.
Fans back home haven’t been kind, even though South Africa have qualified for the knockout stages for only the second time since 2002.
On social media, the team were christened Mabena Mabena – a reference to a member of the South African National Defence Force who rose to prominence after videos of him being told off for being “tall and lazy” went viral, and who has since become a byword for national disappointment.
Even the official City of Johannesburg Twitter account laughed snidely at supporters who had ‘wasted electricity’ in watching the match against Morocco.
Local comedian Skhumba Hlophe trolled the team for his 400,000 Instagram followers, while the hashtag #BafanaCanOnlyWinIf was a prominent presence on South African social media in the aftermath of their loss to the Atlas Lions.
Fans seemingly relished separating themselves from the unstylish and one-dimensional team, almost regardless of the fact that they ultimately did enough to reach the knockouts, despite being drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ before the tournament began.
No wonder the team are feeling besieged, and while Baxter can be forgiven for accusing South Africans back home of “waiting to chop our heads off” at the first whiff of a slip-up, the relish that accompanied their defeat by Morocco drowned out the praise that followed their victory over Namibia.
Yet should Baxter deserve some criticism for not getting the best out of this crop of players?
Perhaps he could have done things differently; he was reluctant to use the creative Thulani Serero until the Morocco game, for example, while Sibusiso Vilakazi was dropped for the Morocco match despite an encouraging showing against Namibia.
However, South Africa would surely have been a more attractive prospect going forward had Keagan Dolly not succumbed to a hamstring problem before the tournament – and there’s a current dearth of quality wingers to replace him, thus limiting the impact of towering substitute Lars Veldwijk.
Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune – with his accurate, lightning quick delivery – could also have been an offensive weapon, while Lebo Mothiba appears to have lost his mojo in Ligue 1 -scoring two goals in his last 18 appearances for Strasbourg – and has carried that poor form into the Nations Cup.
These last factors, all significant, are largely beyond Baxter’s control, but they’ve doubtless conspired to make Bafana more of a workmanlike prospect.
Fans have also been critical of the non-appearance of Thembikosi Lorch, the reigning PSL Player of the Year and Player’s Player of the Year, but Baxter’s decision to keep Lorch on the bench is supported among his coaching staff.
“This is the Afcon,” said assistant coach Mark Fish, somewhat enigmatically, when questioned about Lorch. “Being the PSL top player of the season… this is the Afcon.”
Ahead of the Egypt showdown on Saturday, Baxter has hinted that he is willing to unleash his side and – while not quite returning to the extravagant decadence of Mzansi football – aim for a more progressive, adventurous style of football.
“This is a great opportunity to upset the applecart,” he told journalists on Thursday. “Maybe we can’t, but I don’t want to go away from the game feeling that we didn’t really pitch up, [that it was] a close game‚ but we lost.
“If we’re going to get beaten‚ let’s get beaten with the flag [flown] high‚ not going out there apologising.”
As South Africa is learning, football today is a different prospect to what it was 23 years ago.
Pitso Mosimane and Marks Maponyane both realised this, for example, when they criticised Masibusane Zongo for his over-elaboration back in 2015, and South Africa fans must too.
The fabled Mzansi style is no longer a realistic approach to compete against Africa’s top sides, and even if it was, Bafana no longer have the players – before or after injuries – to play in this way.
Baxter will not give new life to the myth against Egypt in the Round of 16 – he cannot – but a positive performance would at least help South Africa fans to put the stereotype to bed for good.
After all, even Brazil don’t play like Brazil anymore.