It wasn’t the glamorous opening for which most tournaments hope, but early response labeling the match dour or poor are exaggerations. At least, they lack some crucial context. We’ve seen the four-team, three-match group format play out often enough to know opening games can be excessively cagey. Most teams end up happy with a point and something to build on, and to a certain extent, both South Africa and Cape Verde can take that view after Saturday’s 0-0 final.
For South Africa, it would be a generous description. Though they are ranked lower than Cape Verde, they were the favorites going into the match. The disappointments on fan faces after the final whistle spoke to those expectations. While the team struggled coming into the tournament, they were still the hosts, and against a team lacking big names and was making their Cup of Nations debut, the vuvuzela-playing supporters at Johannesburg’s half-full FNB Stadium expected a win.
There were points in the second half then it looked like they could get it. Wide attacker Thuso Phala was consistently able to get behind the defense from the right, his speed creating a series of half chances in the second period. Bernard Parker was unable to find a goal.
Head coach Gordon Ingesund tried to push his team for full points. He brought on Lerato Chabangu for defensive midfielder Kagiso Dikagcoi at half time. Thulani Serero for Siphiwe Tshabalala should have meant more creativity, while Katlego Mphela for Lehlohonolo Majoro up top gave South Africa a more proven goal scorer.
Though the midfield changes helped the Bafana Bafana maintain more possession, their threat was never truly manifested. South Africa didn’t deserve more than the 0-0 result.
“My players didn’t come to the party,” Ingesund said of his team’s first 45 minutes. “The first half was a complete waste.”
Instead, Cape Verde was the team closer to goals, with Ryan Mendes nearly breaking through multiple times in the first half. Streaking through a South Africa defense that often looked slow and slightly disorganized, Mendes and partner Heldón saw multiple opportunities to make something happen in the home side’s penalty box. But the final ball just never came, and the debutants were left with a series of near chances from sharp angles which never truly tested Itumeleng Khune.
But unlike South Africa, the Verdeans have legitimate reason to be happy after the match. While it wouldn’t have been too much to expect them to win today, it was their first Cup of Nations game, a test that can prove distracting for an inexperienced side. Add in the element of playing the home team in the tournament’s opening match and there were a number of factors that made this anything an atypical contest. Going forward, Cape Verde will be able to draw on this experience.
“I am happy, the players are happy and the technical staff are happy.” head coach Lucio Antunes said post-game.
“Today we [dignified] Cape Verde and left with [our heads] held high.”
Through much of the second half, it looked like Cape Verde could concede and become that wide-eyed team that starts strong but ultimately’s left with nothing to show for it. That didn’t happen, and with their point, the Sharks are a win away from being competitive for a knockout round spot.
A win and a draw would likely send Cinderella through. With Angola and Morocco ahead, it’s not an impossible scenario.