Members of SA’s soccer team work out before their Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games opener against hosts Japan. Picture: REUTERS/ KYODO
Members of SA’s soccer team work out before their Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games opener against hosts Japan. Picture: REUTERS/ KYODO

Tokyo — Before the 2010 World Cup, billboards across SA 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.

On Thursday, the SA men’s U-23 football team 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 rumours that we wondered if we’d ever reach this point where the 2020 Games would kick off. Even if it was going to be a year later, in 2021. But the waiting is finally over.

A lot of the build-up to the game against Japan has been around Covid-19. In fact, the three positive cases among 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-19.

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 [Mbombela] 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. 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 (kickoff 1pm SA time). The pool itself is what is commonly called a “Group of Death”, with Japan being joined by SA, Italy, France and Mexico.

Five years ago SA 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 could not score against the South Africans.

Malepe was part of that 2016 group and he will be sharing his experiences with 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 know 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-19, we will give it our best.”

Coach David Notoane used typically feisty SA 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,” he said. “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 SA. Let the Games begin!

Team SA Under-23 (from): 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 —


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