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October 18, 1999


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Cedric D'Souza

South Africa shaping well for Sydney

In my last article, I had brought you up-to-date on the national hockey team of Canada, winners of the Pan American Games. On the same lines, I will now focus on South Africa - the All-African Games champions. By winning that title, they directly qualified for the Sydney Olympics.

The African Games tournament, which was hosted by South Africa, was basically a two-horse race, with Egypt and South Africa being the main contenders. Kenya and Zimbabwe, the other teams in the fray, were just pretenders to the throne - not having the depth or experience to upset the South African or Egyptian applecart.

To put it simply, it was the result of the first game that decided the winner of the African Games.

Let's see how the main teams - South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Zimbabwe - progressed in the tournament.

Kenya versus Egypt
In this match, the much-vaunted Egyptians found themselves up against a well-drilled and spirited Kenyan side which grabbed the lead just before the end of the first half through Godfrey Bila. Egypt equalised in the 48th minute through a stroke by Abd Alla, only to see Kenya take a 2-1 lead again through Bila. With two minutes remaining in the match, Mahmoud Samir pushed one past the keeper for Egypt to salvage a draw.

South Africa versus Kenya
This was basically a one-sided affair. The home team opened the score in the tenth minute of play, when Gregg Clark hit home after a short-corner variation. South Africa remained on the attack and, for most part, kept the game in the Kenyan half, but they gave away a lot of possession to the opponents and failed to perform on many of the short-corners awarded to them. The Kenyans, who spent most of the match protecting their goal, gave the home team a run for the ball with good defensive play. In the 23rd minute, Emile Smith scored South Africa's second goal, after he picked up a cross from the left and steered the ball through the legs of Kenyan goalkeeper Clement Omany. They maintained their 2-0 lead through half time and added the third goal late in the second half when Greg Nicol made sure with his effort.

Egypt versus Zimbabwe
Egypt trounced Zimbabwe 11-1. Egypt, who showed a marked improvement from their match against Kenya, which ended in a 2-2 draw, scored their first three goals off penalty flicks. The first penalty was awarded for foul play, while the second was awarded for a stick infringement. Captain Magdy Abd Alla converted the first two, while the third penalty, awarded because a defender obstructed the ball's path with his shoulder, was planted home by Yasser Mahmoud. The fourth goal came in the 26th minute from Ahmed Ramadan and the fifth in the 32nd by Sameh Metwali, to hand Egypt a comfortable 5-0 lead at the break. The Egyptians continued their form and added six more after the interval with Abd Alla, Metwali (three), Mahmoud Samir and Ramadan scoring. Zimbabwe proved no match for the Egyptians, but did manage a consolation goal 10 minutes from the end via Anthony Burgess.

The penultimate match: South Africa versus Egypt
Past history: The north Africans had beaten the host team once before - in 1994 - and have been South Africa's main opposition during the All-African Games tournaments. Having dropped a valuable point against Kenya, the Egyptians realised that they had to win the crucial match against South Africa if they were to book a ticket to Sydney. Although it was predicted that this match could go either way, the South Africans, by virtue of their two-point advantage, started as clear favourites.

Let me enlighten you briefly on the Egyptian and South African teams.

Egypt had put in a lot of effort to win the All-African Games. They invited teams to play in their country and also sent their team out for international exposure. The north Africans have tremendous running capacity and play to a counter attacking plan - they try and run you ragged, and with their strength overawe you. Once they get a goal in, they put up a solid defense and even if they may not seem visually pleasing in the skills factor, they more than make up for it with their stout hearts. I am sure that the South Africans were well aware of this intrinsic trait within their nearest rivals.

On the eve of the crucial match, Rob Pullen, the confident South African assistant coach, said: "If we want to be a force in international hockey, we have to be able to beat the African teams." Well the South Africans did not disappoint the home crowd as the systematically and consistently bombarded the Egyptian defence. The margin of victory - 4-0 - spoke for itself – the Egyptian defense cracked under sustained pressure, as goals by Justin King, via a penalty-corner, Wayne Denne, from a field goal, and the effervescent Greg Nicol, two off penalty-corners, rained in.

My first meeting with the South African team was at the Sydney World Cup in 1994. What's interesting about the team is that although they don't have many stars, they play as a single unit. In short, they really demonstrate what teamwork is all about. They have one basic trait: fight to the bitter end and never let up till the final whistle. Their aggression, coupled with skillful play and tactical ability, has made them a team worth going miles to watch. They have given many an elite team a hard time and, if memory serves me, right they were leading us at the World Cup in Sydney till we shared points with a late penalty-corner equaliser. At that time, they had an English coach, Gavin Featherstone. He did bring South African hockey out of the woods and on to the international map. At the end of his contract, Gavin left and the national coach's job was entrusted to a former international Gilles Bonnet.

South Africa played India last year in the Commonwealth Games, and I can honestly say that we were lucky to have grabbed a late winner from a Baljit Dhillon drag flick penalty-corner conversion. During the second half, the Indian team was fortunate to see two beautiful deflections by Greg Nicol miss the mark marginally, whilst on another occasion, we were rescued by the woodwork. Then we had the Test series in South Africa, in August this year, where India was comprehensively beaten 3-0. This surely must have done their morale a world of good and it was no surprise that the team came into the African Games brimming with confidence.

Coach Giles Bonnet is a bloke that on first impression you just take to. I met up with him at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and whilst interacting with him as well as studying South Africa's performance during the Games, one was immediately impressed with the team's commitment, fire in the belly and tactical acumen. Giles is young, enthusiastic and ready to seek advice while structuring hockey in South Africa. What is remarkable is the manner in which he has been able to get so much out of his team in terms of skill, fitness and tactics. He is always ready to have a chat with coaches his senior and that has gone a long way in building this South African team.

International stars
South Africa have an array of top class players in their ranks today, but two who are really world class are Greg Nicol and Brian Myburg. Greg Nicol (nominated by the South African Hockey Association as their player of the year) is a mercurial striker with tremendous speed, stick-work and a finish that would make the great Sean Kerly stand up and applaud. He terrorises most defenses and can change the complexion of the game when you least expect, by converting half chances with the same aplomb as those that are served to him on a platter. He has been South Africa’s most prolific scorer and one who can score equally well with the fore or reverse and from any angle. His biggest asset is the early preparation when about to receive a pass, that gives goalkeepers absolutely no chance for anticipation. There is no doubt that he is one of the best strikers in the world today.

But this is upfront. Way behind in deep defence they have one of the top three goalkeepers in the world in Brian Myburg. He has come to South Africa's rescue time and again with his uncanny anticipation, lightning reflexes and superb angle marking. Technically, he is one of the best between the posts.

There is little doubt that South Africa are going to be a force to reckon with at the coming Olympics. They are improving with each outing and should peak in time for the big event. They have all it takes to strike gold. However, at the moment, there hangs a cloud over their participation. Although they have qualified by virtue of their triumph at the African Games' tournament, the team is still not sure whether it will be there at Sydney. That's because the decision to field the team at the Olympics rests with the National Olympic Committee of South Africa, which is still not certain how big a contingent it will send.

The Olympics come every four years and every athlete wants to get there to experience the spirit of the Games - the spirit of oneness and healthy competition, where one can rub shoulders with the cream of the world in every sport. For the sake of South African hockey, as well as the international hockey loving fraternity, I sincerely hope South Africa will be there in Sydney. Let's hope their National Olympic Committee decides in the affirmative and does not let all the hard work that the team has put in go down the drain.

Cedric D'Souza

Sports Editor