IT IS easy to read too much into the results of friendlies. In fact, it is easy to read too much into results, full stop. Defeat by Norway on Tuesday, coming so soon after similar defeats against Zambia and Poland, was a disappointment for SA, of course, but there is little reason for despair.
"The result is a piece of data," the Spanish coach Juanma Lillo, a mentor to Pep Guardiola, once said. "The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that’s enriching.
"Fulfilment comes from the process. You debate the game, not the results. Results are not debatable, are they? Do you buy a paper on a Monday morning and the only thing in it is list after list of results?
"Do you go into a football stadium, in the last minute of a game, have a look at the scoreboard and leave? You watch 90 minutes, which is the process."
In friendlies in particular what is important is less the score-line than the way the game was played. Yes, it is a concern that SA seem to have such a problem turning possession into goals. But in a sense it is far better at this stage for the long term to have dominated a match and failed to win it than to have won by nicking a freakish goal. In tournaments, the result is everything but the point of warm-up games is preparation.
Since Gordon Igesund took over, what has begun to emerge is an SA who are confident on the ball, something that was notable even against Brazil. As Spain showed at the Euros last year, dominating the ball is the first step to dominating matches. It sounds paradoxical but games are not won by scoring goals; goals are scored by winning games. Play the game in the way you want to play it, dominate in the key areas and battles: win control and the goals should come.
That’s not to say SA are anywhere near as good as Spain — but they have a basis to work from. Even if creativity is missing, dominating the ball limits the chances the opponent can create.
Given the limited time available to international coaches, generating mutual understanding is not easy. It takes practice and repetition and it is only in tournaments that national teams have the opportunity to work on that.
Hosting a tournament can bring additional pressure, but when crowds are supportive rather than fretful, it should help stimulate a confidence that will aid the process of finding a sharpness to go with the possession.
Home advantage is greater in the Nations Cup than in any other major international tournament. Since 1990, 17% of World Cups, 25% of Copas America, 17% of Asian Cups and no European Championships have been won by the hosts, while 44% of African Nations Cup tournaments have.
This is despite the Confederation of African Football’s policy of taking the tournament away from the traditional heartlands.
Cote d’Ivoire are the favourites for this African Nations Cup, but after them the field looks open. Lightning surely cannot strike twice for Zambia, while Ghana, Nigeria and Tunisia have not looked convincing recently.
Recent results have not been encouraging, but given their midfield control, it would not take much to ignite SA. With a relatively easy draw and home advantage, if they can find just a dash of magic to go with the patience and possession, Bafana have a chance. The process looks good even if results do not.