IT’S only partially accurate to say Bafana will confront Mali on Saturday. Because in one sense they will actually confront France. Nine of the Eagles’ starting XI were either born in France or moved there in childhood, and were trained in French academies. And only five of (French) coach Patrice Carteron’s 23-man squad began their professional careers in Mali.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Seydou Keita and friends play distinctly Camembert-scented football. They defend rigorously, and they mount controlled, patient attacks that mix aerial and ground passing. They have little appetite for spontaneity and chaos, and might become unsettled if Bafana force a messy, frenetic contest.
Aside from their Gallic football brains, the other thing you can’t fail to notice about Mali is that they are huge. Only two of their entire squad stand under 6ft tall in his socks – and neither of those two runts is likely to play on Saturday.
Keeper Mamadou Samassa of Guingamp (not to be confused with his cousin and striker teammate of the same name) stands at 1.97m (6’6”). He collects swirling crosses with the ease of a man picking melons from a supermarket shelf.
By contrast, only two members of Bafana’s starting line-up are 6ft or taller – Siyabonga Sangweni and Bongani Khumalo.
The height gap obviously demands that Bafana keep the ball down, and try to exploit whatever agility advantage they might have with quick, short exchanges that force the big Eagles to change direction on the hop. May Mahlangu and Tokelo Rantie cooked up the former’s goal against Morocco with exactly that kind of snappy geometry.
And if Bafana have one player with enough raw acceleration to hurt the Malians, it’s Thuso Phala. The jet-heeled Platinum Stars winger was an unfashionable selection by Gordon Igesund, but in the past two games Phala has all but silenced the media flak that greeted his inclusion in the starting line-up.
He runs good lines and works like a madman – and his low, hard centres must eventually bear fruit. With any luck, Phala’s industry and pace should help to push back Mali’s rampaging leftback Adama Tamboura, who created Mamadou Samassa’s goal with a raid to the Congolese byline on Monday night.
But for the acrobatics of Morocco keeper Nadir Lamyaghri, he would be the proud owner of the second-best goal of the tournament thus far, after Alain Traore’s ripper against Ethiopia.
It was agony for Phala to see his bazooka blast of a free-kick from 30m clawed out of the goalmouth by Lamyaghri.
“I came into the tournament really wanting to score, and I still aim to do that,” he said.
“But the great thing is that now there is not so much pressure on any individual to score. The goals can come from anywhere – look at Siyabonga Sangweni, he looks like a striker!”
Some are arguing for the selection of fit-again Lehlohonolo Majoro as the starting centreforward. The Chiefs ace showed fire and composure alike against Angola, and Igesund might consider giving his club partnership with Bernard Parker another whirl.
Keita believes Saturday’s game is a 50-50 clash, with the Malians’ superior quality neutralised by South Africa’s home advantage.
If the Durbanites crank up the spirit even higher, Keita may find himself revising that ratio in the opening minutes.