Football: Picture is developed and looks best in black and white - John Carlin in Johannesburg on the three-match series against Cameroon that saw South African football reborn

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The Independent Online
ONE DREAM bit the dust and another was born on South Africa's football pitches last week after a three-match visit by Cameroon which at last provided more than speculative answers to questions long asked about South Africa's standing on the international stage.

The dream of African solidarity, of those special emotions the South African 'oppressed' are supposed to elicit among the peoples to the north, did not last beyond the first match on Tuesday night in Durban, which South Africa won 1-0 after a fiercely disputed penalty. Friendly or no friendly, the Cameroon defenders did not spare their markedly spindlier brothers the scything knee-high tackles that characterised Cameroon's otherwise glorious 1990 World Cup.

But while, physically, some were calling it 'Les Lions Indomptables' versus The Pygmies, what emerged was that South Africa have a team to compete with the best in Africa, a team that could reach the final stages of the World Cup in 1994. The second match, on Thursday in Cape Town, Cameroon won 2-1 after having two players sent off. The final match, in Johannesburg on Saturday, was a 2-2 draw which South Africa, coming back twice from behind, might have won.

Never before had South Africa fielded a truly representative, multi-racial team in international football. While 99 per cent of the people who follow South African football are black, a good number of the players, and many of the coaches, are white. The players who competed last week included two whites, the captain, Neil Tovey, and the goalkeeper, Mark Anderson.

On the stands in the 78,000 capacity First National Bank stadium on Saturday, Tovey provoked as much affection, if not as much admiration, among the running commentators in the crowd as 'Doctor' Khumalo, the velvet-footed midfielder who tucked away the 79th minute penalty winner at the historic Durban match.

Stanley 'Screamer' Tshabalala, the national team coach, consistently singled out the blond-haired Tovey for special praise in his post-match press conferences last week. 'Neil is a battler who leads by example, something we don't have too much of among our black players. He knows he's not a player with flair but he is me on the pitch. He knows when to tell the players to go back, to push up. We have great understanding, so much so that before I selected the squad we talked a lot so I could get his views.'

Tovey is a perfect complement to the likes of Khumalo, 'Ace' Khuze and Fani Madida, the sort of players who - as has been noted by the former Manchester United and England goalkeeper Gary Bailey (who has played for Soweto's Kaizer Chiefs and is now a local sports broadcaster) - can do things with a tennis ball that ordinary English First Division players cannot do with a football.

'With blacks and whites in South Africa, that's where we have a possible edge over the rest of Africa,' Tshabalala said. 'We can produce teams blending battlers with players of flair.' Tovey is one of those players who will chase and harry the opposition all afternoon, is always available for the ball and has the humility and good sense promptly to release it to players more skilful than himself. Having said that, at no point did he justify his manager's faith more than in the second half of Saturday's game when he slipped through a ball to winger Bennet Masinga as perfectly weighted and timed as Maradona's to Caniggia for Argentina's winner against Brazil in 1990. On the run, Masinga put away South Africa's second equaliser without breaking his stride.

The ultra - not to say cynical - professionalism of that Argentina team is precisely what the South Africa team lacks, however. The second Cameroon goal on Saturday came about in the 40th second of the second half with the South African defence either asleep or concentrating on the witch-doctor prancing - leopard skins and all - behind their goal.

Generally, South African players have a tendency to indulge in what Roger Milla - who, at 40, strolled his way elegantly through the three matches - criticised as 'amateurish clowning'. All too often, the likes of 'Doctor' Khumalo would find that, having dazzlingly beaten three players in the centre circle, the rest of the team would stand watching as mesmerised as the crowd with no one making the move into space necessary to capitalise on his skills.

Significantly, the most valuable of the South African players was the only one who plays in Europe, Augustine Makalakalane of FC Zurich. There was an urgency and purposefulness about this midfielder's play, starkly lacking in the rest of his team-mates, even when they were a goal down. He was almost too thoughtful for his team-mates, too often one step ahead of them.

But thrust and speed and wit, when they came, provided some delightful moments on Saturday, justifying Tshabalala's shrewdly optimistic concluding remarks on the series on Saturday evening. 'We are not world-beaters. We have a lot to learn. But what a promising start]'