Football: Bafana skin awaiting the unwary

Guy Hodgson on the combination of British directness and African daring facing England
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The Independent Online
Talk to Clive Barker, coach of the South Africans, and ask him how he feels to be playing England and he replies: "It's a miracle". To be facing anyone after 30 years of isolation is a plus but to be invited into the home of football means a lot even to a nation that has had a few years to adapt from their erstwhile position as international pariahs.

Yet if Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, thinks he will be meeting football's Third World at Old Trafford tonight he will be in for a surprise. Short of a World Cup or European Championship match, it is hard to imagine more prickly opponents - in more ways than one, as South African officials discovered yesterday when the players threatened to boycott today's game unless their match fee was increased.

South Africa will be desperate for a win, which will put them apart from some countries who have arrived in England, picked up their financial guarantees and then conformed to the word friendly to the point where the exercise becomes futile. Given their 11th-hour pay increase, the players - or "mercenaries", as their own officials referred to them yesterday - should certainly be expected to give their all.

They are African Nations' Cup holders and are ranked 25th in the world (England are 14th, Scotland 24th) so it was no empty boast when they were introduced at their Cheshire training camp as the "world's emerging football power".

That is reflected in the players they will be bringing to Manchester. Lucas Radebe, their captain, is familiar for his work with Leeds United, as is their top scorer Phil Masinga who now plays in Italy's Serie B with Salernitana. But there will also be Mark Fish, who interested Manchester United before he accepted a contract with Lazio, John Moshoeu, who plays for Turkey's Kocaelispor and Sizwe Motaung and David Nyathi whose club, Tenerife, were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by the eventual winners, Schalke, only in the semi-finals.

As the Radio Five Live trailer points out, South Africa "have beaten us at rugby, they have beaten us at cricket" and yes, Bafana Bafana ("the boys"), as they are known in their native country, are quite capable of beating us at football. "I've come here to win," Barker, who has been defeated in just five of his 33 matches since he took over as South African coach in March 94, said, "it would be a shock if we lose. I respect the English game but I'm not in awe of it.

"This match is a chance to see how much we have improved since we came out of isolation. In a sense we're in the same position as Glenn Hoddle: we can't afford to lose. We're South Africans and our public will not tolerate failure - we're expected to win every game."

Trevor Phillips, the former commercial director of the Football Association who has spent the last year in South Africa overseeing the inaugural season of a fully professional premier league, said: "I can't understand why England would take this fixture. The South Africans are looking forward to it as the biggest day in their soccer history."

That might seem a slight exaggeration as Barker's team are in the middle of a World Cup qualification campaign, but white South Africans have tended to ignore the national team, preferring to focus on England's Premiership. A win at Old Trafford will amply fill the credibility gap. "Would be it shown live in South Africa?", Mark Gleeson, the squad's PR man, was asked. "There would be riots if it wasn't," he replied.

Barker added: "Football has become the front runner now, and coverage is catching up fast. It's by far the biggest spectator sport. They had a survey in which 87 per cent of South Africans said they identified with football which was far ahead of what rugby and cricket commanded."

Football's importance has hardly been undermined by recent results that included draws against Germany and Argentina and a 3-2 defeat by Brazil. At first the South Africans were gauche, overwhelmed by meeting players they had admired on television. Familiarity has bred content.

"We thought in South Africa that the world was waiting for us to arrive," Barker said, "but it had moved on. We were playing catch-up and it reflected in our results. Our footballers were overawed but it's not so much a problem now because people like Radebe are meeting Alan Shearer and David Beckham on a regular basis."

Radebe will man mark Shearer tonight and his knowledge has helped Barker's preparations. "He's a very important player for us," the coach said. "Lucas had a bad knee injury last year and I was tempted to leave him out of the African Nations' Cup squad, but he begged me to keep a place for him. What swung it was when he rang me up and said `If I play against Ghana I want to mark Tony Yeboah'. He did, had a marvellous game and we won 3-0. Yeboah barely got a kick."

Radebe acknowledges his debt to English football just as South Africa as a whole have developed so quickly thanks partly to the groundwork of British coaches in the Fifties and Sixties. "We have a special culture," Barker said. "Part British, part African. We can play fast and direct, but we've also managed to keep the flair of the townships.

"If you had asked me five years ago if we'd be playing Germany, Argentina and Brazil I'd have thought it was impossible. If you look back to the Seventies we had no facilities, no grounds and few coaches."

Nearly 30 years on, the South African domestic league is in rude health and tonight will be a barometer for the national team's prospects. A potential Bafana skin awaits England.