Bafana Bafana are masters of the art of thrashing minor African football nations – in their minds, before match day.
But as soon as the whistle blows for kickoff, the obscure rivals cause shock and consternation by revealing themselves to be actual footballers, as opposed to the moonlighting clowns and glorified Uber drivers that Bafana had imagined them to be.
Rattled by this unexpected competence, Bafana proceed to fail to either win, or to win by the healthy margin that builds a successful qualification campaign.
This scenario is a very real possibility for the men’s senior national team on Saturday, when they face Libya at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.
The visitors’ ranking is not much to talk of, and their squad lacks any “big name” players. Half the side play for Al-Ahli Tripoli, with a scattered cohort of journeymen based in Portugal and the Arabian Gulf.
It doesn’t help matters that the Mediterranean Knights represent a failed state. Seven years since rebels and Western forces destroyed the Gaddafi regime, Libya is still a hot mess.
Two rival governments make claims to national authority – one based in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk – but much of the country has been ripped into a jagged jigsaw of rebel territories, variously controlled by Touareg and Tebu leaders, Isis fighters and local militias.
As this slow-burning civil war drags on, thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa pass through its frontlines to the Mediterranean coast every month, risking death and enslavement in their pursuit of sanctuary across the water.
Just this week, armed factions were warring for control of the Libyan capital Tripoli. A ceasefire was struck on Monday, according to the United Nations. Don’t count on a lasting peace.
So Libya coach Adel Amrouche, who is Algerian, finds himself in an invidious position: coaching a team who play for a nation that doesn’t exist, strictly speaking.
Beware, Bafana. Don’t seize on the problems of your opponents as an excuse to relax. Because very often, the trauma of war appears to channel the will of a people into the minds and bodies of its football team. A sense of restored pride and hope can flicker to life in the demilitarised zone between the touchlines. On the pitch, the old rules still apply, and fans and players alike cling to its ark of order and continuity.
Take the recent example of the Syrian national side, who came desperately close to qualifying for the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia. Surreally, the Syrian domestic league has continued to function throughout the country’s conflict, and that spirit of peaceful defiance was demonstrated in spades by the national side last year.
They lost 3-2 on aggregate in a playoff against Australia; had they prevailed, they would have had the chance for another playoff against Honduras for a ticket to Russia.
One can scarcely imagine what qualification might have meant to the millions of their compatriots scattered across the Syrian diaspora. Football is anything but trivial when it becomes the only thing left unbroken that binds you to your people.
We should also know about the motivational power of upheaval from our own history. Given our players’ inexperience, Bafana overperformed during South Africa’s bloody transition to democracy, and went on to conquer the continent soon after the dawn of freedom.
During the height of the Saddam Hussein regime – defined by a long, brutal war against Iran – Iraq were consistently the strongest side in Asia. This despite a climate of constant fear, sectarian hate and the horrific abuse of national players by Uday Hussein, the tyrant’s sadistic son, who would order his henchmen to whip and torture them in the aftermath of a loss.
They didn’t lose often. As James Montague writes in his travel memoir When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone, the team were “arguably the last symbol of national unity left in Iraq”.
A civil war can also forge new nations and unleash more than one redemptive football side. Witness the flowering of Balkan brilliance during the 90s, during and after the terrible war that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Croatia came third at the 1998 Fifa World Cup in France, while Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro all became potent sides as peace took hold.
Football historians have speculated feverishly about the greatness of a hypothetical Yugoslavian side in 1992. That year, with the war at its height, Yugoslavia were barred from participating in the European championships, for which they had qualified. Denmark stepped in and won the tournament.
Had the Balkan conflict not happened, then the first Croatian golden generation of Robert Jarni, Igor Štimac, Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović would possibly have reached their peak in the same team as a clutch of Serbian maestros such as Siniša Mihajlović, Alen Bokšić, Dragan Stojković and Dejan Savićević. Such a side could have won any tournament on offer, World Cup included.
For the Libyans in Durban on Saturday, the dream is much more modest, but no less real. They are here to defend the honour of a broken country. Bafana would do well to honour them by giving their best.