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Minister angry at South Africa

South Africa's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, has called the country's failure to qualify for next year's African Nations Cup a "disgrace and an embarrassment".

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Bafana Bafana missed out on the continental championship in dramatic fashion when they drew 0-0 with Sierra Leone on October 1, thinking it was enough to get them through, when they actually needed to win.

South Africa, Niger and Sierra Leone all ended the qualification stage on nine points and CAF's rule 14.1 states that in the event of teams being deadlocked, their head-to-head records and not goal difference will decide who qualifies. Niger topped the resulting mini-league and so booked their tickets to Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Instead of accepting its mistake, the South African Football Association (SAFA) claimed that CAF's rules were "wrong" and said it would appeal to the body, because it believed the team's better goal difference should see them through. Momentum for the appeal has failed to get going with public pressure mounting on SAFA to admit their mistake and now Mbalula has added his weight to that argument.

"This was a serious blunder. The best thing is to accept the defeat and mediocrity on the part of the leadership and move on," Mbalula said. He said he expected more from administrators and now believed they should publicly ask for forgiveness. "I am very shocked that that apology has not come up and at the same time people are still appealing. The country has been seriously let down. SAFA must be ashamed."

Mbalula said the mistake was serious enough to merit resignations from the office. "People excuse themselves from positions in situations like this," he said. "They say, 'I will resign. I failed the country. I apologise. I will go on with my job elsewhere'. I wanted SAFA to say, 'There will be consequences. We are looking into this matter. We are investigating and then we will decide'."

With SAFA showing no signs of making anyone pay for the error, Mbalula went on to criticise their gameplan and said that under no circumstances should the national team aim for a stalemate. "You can't be proud to play for a draw in the national interest. National interest means you must die for the jersey," he said. "You can't say in public that you played for a draw because you were relying on another game. It's anti-national interest." Bafana Bafana believed that Egypt's 3-0 victory over Niger would be enough for them to qualify and have become notorious for their defensive style of play, even in games they would be expected to win.

The team did not escape the minister's wrath and he saved the most scathing of comments for them. "Bafana Bafana don't understand what it means to be South African. They didn't try," he said. "It is a point about our sports that people must understand. To don that jersey is national pride, not a gift from your mother or your father. It's not playing for Moroka Swallows - it's playing for the national team. It's not privatised. These people don't understand what it means to be in the national team."

He said their poor example was setting the bar too low for people who dream of becoming national sportsmen. "You can imagine what will happen for generations to come. We are saying to our youngsters: you can misread the rules, its business as usual, anyone can play for Bafana Bafana, there is no pride, just become a mediocrity, you will be fine."

Mbalula said that he does not support the appeal and would advise SAFA to lick its wounds in a dignified manner and respect the rules. "The rules are written in black and white. I heard one player said CAF people change rules after the game. That is not true. They must accept it," he said.

It's unlikely that heads will roll at SAFA after the bungle but South African football has not escaped controversy. On Tuesday, the chief executive of the Premier Soccer League, Zola Majavu, resigned, after less than five months in charge, citing fundamental differences with the organisation. Majavu was under the impression that in his capacity as chief executive, he could hire the chief operations officer, chief financial officer and legal advisor of the league. In fact, only the executive committee can make such appointments and Majavu left upon realising this.


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