Ahead of the 2010 World Cup there were billboards all over South Africa which shouted, “the waiting is over”. After what had seemed an eternity, the first match exploded into life. The sideshows and build-up were quickly consigned to history… writes GARY LEMKE in Tokyo.
On Thursday, South Africa’s men’s under-23s go into battle against hosts Japan on day one of competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. There have been so many sideshows, such uncertainty and rumour that we wondered if we’d ever reach this point where the 2020 Games were going to kick-off. Even if it was going to be a year later, in 2021. But, the waiting is finally over.
South African players first to test positive for Covid in Olympic village bubble
A lot of the build-up into the game against Japan has been around Covid-19. In fact, the three positive cases amongst Team SA’s men’s football squad – two players and an official – were the first to be reported inside the Olympic village bubble, “the safest place on earth” when it comes to Covid. (There are reportedly now over 70 people who have tested positive for Covid.)
To say it has been a distraction is an understatement, with the affected players placed in quarantine and the remainder in isolation. “It was very difficult,” admitted captain Tercious Malepe. “We obviously didn’t expect to experience what we experienced here in the village and that came on the back of an arduous journey to get here.
“Our preparation has been less than ideal. We returned to SA from Egypt and had a short camp in Nelspruit before leaving for Japan where we were in isolation for a week. Not being allowed to leave our hotel rooms, we were only able to train for the first time on Monday,” Malepe said.
We’re here to play, not complain
“But it is what it is, circumstances out of our control. We’re here to play, not complain.”
Japan are huge favourites to pick up maximum points in their Group A opener on Thursday (kick-off 1pm SA time). The pool itself is what’s commonly called a “Group of Death”, with hosts Japan being joined by South Africa, Italy, France and Mexico.
Five years ago South Africa lost only one match in their group – that being 1-0 to Denmark – and drew with Brazil and Iraq. The Brazilians were hosts in Rio but a squad that included Neymar and Gabriel Jesus couldn’t score against the South Africans.
Malepe was part of that 2016 group and he will be imparting his experiences onto the 2020 squad. If you can keep Brazil scoreless in Rio then why not Japan in Tokyo?
“I actually think it’s the hosts who are under more pressure than us,” he said. “They need the win, they need to move through to the knockouts quickly. I’ve been telling the guys to be patient and disciplined. We known Japan are going to come at us and bring everything. But the guys understand the magnitude of the game and despite all the setbacks and disadvantages with preparation, squad changes and Covid, we will give it our best.”
Coach David Notoane used typically feistier South African language. “Our boys were huffing and puffing after their first training session in the heat here but we’re in a war zone and we have to fight. Physically, we’re at a huge disadvantage against them as they’re highly athletic and we have a mammoth task. They’ll be difficult to knock down but we’re excited.”
As is the rest of South Africa. Let the Games begin!
Team SA Under-23: Evidence Makgopa, Tercious Malepe, Katlego Mohamme, James Monyane, Goodman Mosele, Luther Singh, Luke Fleurs, Teboho Mokoena, Mondli Mpoto, Ronwen Williams, Sbusiso Mabiliso, Thabo Cele, Kamohelo Mahlatsi, Kobamelo Kodisang, Sifiso Mlungwana, Reeve Frosler, Macbeth Mahlangu, Thendo Mukumela, Nkosingiphile Ngcobo
If you’re in South Africa, stream the Olympics on Showmax!