Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter suggested that there were positives to be taken out of the state of his team, despite it being knocked out in the quarter-final stage of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in Egypt on Wednesday.
Bafana were eliminated by bitter rivals Nigeria after they beat them 2-1 at the Cairo International Stadium, thanks to a 89th minute William Troost-Ekong strike, which helped the Super Eagles get one over Baxter’s side for the first time since the Briton took charge of South Africa for a second spell in 2017. The teams had met twice before between then and now, with Bafana beating Nigeria in their backyard in June 2017, in the first meeting of the qualifiers for this very tournament, before a 1-1 draw at FNB Stadium in the return leg, in November last year.
South Africa went on to finish the six qualifying matches undefeated, which Baxter pointed out as one of the positive strides they have made since he took over.
“Since we played in that game in Uyo, there’s been a massive change in the face of the squad. I think we’ve had 13 debutants during the last two years. Even the players that were good players, we’ve changed quite a few. We’ve had to because we’ve had to try to re-manipulate the average age of the team; we’ve brought in some younger ones, we’ve kept some of the older players, and I think it’s been a difficult journey but we didn’t lose a game for one and a half years,” says Baxter.
The coach also says merely being at the Afcon this year has also been good for the team: “We came to this tournament, really, to try to give this team a major tournament that they haven’t had, because we’ve not qualified for Afcon for quite a while, so I’m sure the experience will do the players good, but we have to learn.”
Bafana conceded a late goal in the quarter-final after having equalized through Duduza-born, France-based midfielder Bongani Zungu in the 71st minute, on the back of a Samuel Chukwueze opener in the first half. Baxter defended the decision to push for a winner instead of settling for a stalemate and going to extra-time.
“This is a tournament, you get nothing for a draw. So then we kept on pushing as hard as we could, without leaving ourselves too exposed; and the goal comes from a set-play which is not dealt with by us and I don’t think we can close out a game any better than that,” added the coach.