IT can take some time to find Equatorial Guinea — the tiny west African country whose national team play Bafana Bafana in an African Nations Cup qualifier at the Super Stadium in Atteridgeville this afternoon — on a world map.
With a population of 500 000 (the smallest in Africa), Equatorial Guinea is little more than a speck sandwiched between Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon just below the “corner” on the west African coast.
For most South Africans, the country is probably best known for a failed coup involving many hired guns from SA and backed by wealthy interests inside Equatorial Guinea, which, if it had been pulled off, would have resembled Frederick Forsythe’s The Dogs of War.
In football, though — as proved by the Netherlands, Denmark and Senegal — size is not everything. Like South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, too, have a Brazilian coach, Jordan de Freitas, under whom they have won three games, drawn one and lost two. They beat Sierra Leone 2-0 in their opening qualifier, and have arrived scenting the shakiness of a Bafana team finding their feet following the departure of Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Equatorial Guinea have risen almost 100 places in the last three years on the Fifa rankings, from 173rd to 74th, just six places behind South Africa in 68th. They boast two threatening star players in Racing Santander midfielder Javier Balbao and Deportivo La Coruna forward Rodolf Bodipo, and even managed a 1-0 victory over powerhouse neighbours Cameroon in the qualifers for the 2008 Nations Cup, though the match was of no relevance.
Bafana will be aware that this is no Chad, the team resembling schoolboys who they beat 3-0 and 4-0 in the 2008 qualifiers. South Africa need a confidence booster following their leaden-legged performance against Nigeria last week, and should have the superior class to notch up their first victory of Group Four this afternoon, but they will have to work for it.
Bafana coach Joel Santana has said he will make two or three changes from his disappointing first match in charge against Nigeria. Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, who suffered an asthma attack in the build-up to the Abuja match, returns somewhat controversially for Rowen Fernandez, who was Bafana’s star player against the Nigerians.
Santana is also set to make a few changes in the outfield, though the coach appeared to have not yet decided on his starting XI by yesterday’s training, as indicated by his utilising of 12 players in his shadow “first team”.
Thankfully, Bryce Moon appears set to return to right-back, where the experiment of converting midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi to full-back failed against the Nigerians. Left-back Tshepo Masilela had a bout of flu and a hamstring strain this week, and Innocent Mdledle trained in that position yesterday.
Dikgacoi appears set to play alongside MacBeth Sibaya in a tandem defensive midfield combination. Delron Buckley should retain his place on the left, while Santana appears still to have a decision to make on which of Lance Davids, Steven Pienaar and Teko Modise will play on the right and at playmaker behind Terror Fanteni, who is likely to come in for Surprise Moriri at lone striker.
Overall, the return from injury of Modise and Lerato Chabangu will give Santana many more attacking options coming off the bench than he had in Abuja.
Bafana play two more qualifiers in the next two weeks against Sierra Leone, at home and away. A victory today will settle the nerves of the South Africans, in their quest to qualify for the Nations Cup in Angola in early 2010, just months before the hosting of the World Cup.