The tickets sales have been abysmal to say the least, 2018 World Cup hopes hang by the thinnest of threads and Bafana Bafana take on Group D leaders Burkina Faso at FNB Stadium on Saturday afternoon looking for redemption.
It’s the unwanted script for national team coach Stuart Baxter as he faces what is way more than a mammoth task to get his charges to the global showpiece in Russia next year.
Bafana are bottom of the group with just a single point from three qualifiers and have done very little to inspire confidence in the lead up to a must-win against Paulo Duarte’s Stallions, who squeezed in a late goal to salvage a draw in Ouagadougou when the two sides met this time last year.
Shakes Mashaba was Bafana coach then and had seemingly made sure Bafana got off to a decent start on the road to the World Cup, that belief affirmed even more so by the 2-1 win over favourites Senegal at the Peter Mokaba Stadium a month after the clash away to Burkina Faso. The Senegal win has since been annulled by Fifa, who say they have concrete evidence supporting the allegation that the match was fixed and ordered a replay scheduled for next month. Referee Joseph Lamptey was also handed a lifetime ban.
Baxter arrived on the scene two matches (at the time) into these World Cup qualifiers and began gearing up for the back-to-back home and away fixtures against lowly Cape Verde.
But before that, the coach had to deal with a continental qualifier as Bafana travelled to Uyo to face Nigeria for the opening game in the quest to reach the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. A 2-0 win was the result – a first ever victory for Bafana against the Super Eagles in a qualifying match.
With Cape Verde next, the expectation was that those two games would be relatively easy for Bafana, and that the six points would all but guarantee their place in Russia. The lowly islanders were the shock winners in both games instead.
Now Baxter and his charges have it all to do – the permutations still giving them a slim chance, but the coach, as hopeful as continues to be, will know that it’s going to take something special to qualify for the World Cup.
In an attempt to shake things up following the horror of having to lose twice in four days to The Blue Sharks last month, Baxter rang the changes in the squad. A notable omission was that of striker Tokelo Rantie, who scored away in Praia and is Bafana’s leading goal scorer with 13 goals from 40 international games.
Baxter said the player has been inactive because of a three-match suspension in Turkey and has been used mostly as a wide player and therefore would not be ideal for the Burkina Faso clash.
So, young Phakamani Mahlambi and Dino Ndlovu were the two significant inclusions upfront. But will they deliver if Baxter gambles by selecting them?
“It’s obviously a big game and there’s a lot of pressure,” Mahlambi said this week. “But we don’t have to take that into our minds. It’s a game of football, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. I think we need to have a positive mind and for sure we will win the game.”
Not that convincing, sadly.
And in a do-or-die match at a venue that hosted the 2010 World Cup final, Bafana will be desperate for redemption against a Burkina Faso side that have said all week they feel as if their qualification for Russia – what would be a first for their country – is almost palpable.
All this, possibly, in front of a mediocre crowd as fans refuse to put their bums on seats.