Fikile Mbalula - in his previous life as Sports Minister, Jacob Zuma-defender and part-time motivational speaker -had these words to say about South Africa’s national men's soccer team back in 2014.
His exact words were: “What I saw was a bunch of losers. With no respect for this country. I saw a team that was South African in the second half, fighting to win. Two useless goals. I mean, Nigeria was shocked. They thought they were going to meet the lions whose stadium was going to be filled to capacity, come and fight for their own country. But what did they come to meet? Just a bunch of unbearable, useless individuals.”
Mbalula said this at a press conference after Bafana Bafana’s unceremonious exit from the Africa Cup of Nations in 2014. Back then coach Gordon Igesund was at the helm of Bafana, and they had just been dumped out of the tournament by Nigeria.
Now, let’s be clear, it’s never polite to call anyone a loser. Let alone our national team, and certainly a minister should never fall victim to such visceral honesty – but we understood where Mbalula was coming from. We agreed with him, to an extent. We understood his frustration because he was saying what we all were thinking.
Whether we like it or not, in life, we are either winning or we are losing. If you’re not being robbed blind by corrupt individuals or murdered on the streets of Sudan by your own military, chances are you’re winning at life on some level.
Winning and losing is relative to your own situation and does not discount the daily miracles that happen in everyone’s lives, from waking up and breathing in the morning, to having a job to go to and food to eat. Daily, South Africans survive, some even prosper despite the economy and the system of governance – not because of it. As far as we have observed, our rulers continue to find new ways to make life more and more unbearable for the poorest among us, who keep losing every day.
Of course, we’re not a nation of losers, but the stats suggest that we lose quite often when it matters most on the field of play. By now, many have already given up hope in the Proteas at the Cricket World Cup. One more defeat and we may as well save on accommodation costs and S&T allowances. Bring your asses home, boys. We’ve seen enough.
I’m being crass and unpatriotic and probably very unpopular right now, but for a few weeks now I’ve become sceptical of the attitude by the Proteas camp that it’s OK to be dark horses and not considered the favourites; and “we’ll just fly under the radar and look cool doing it and surprise everyone” by winning the World Cup. Bull excrement.
Can you imagine Virat Kohli or David Warner going into a match with that defeatist attitude? Do you think that Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sends his players out of the tunnel telling them to keep a low profile and fly under the radar? Or does he light a fire under them, telling them to play like the champions they are?
Winners know how to win; they make a habit of it. They embrace the favourites tag and go out there KNOWING they’re the best, believing they’re the best – and often, playing like they’re the best. When Muhammad Ali declared “I am The Greatest,” he wasn’t just being arrogant. He was making a statement of fact. He believed he was The Greatest boxer of all time, and history has proved him right. He never once went around saying he’ll fly under the radar. To hell with the radar.
Banyana Banyana are not losers – though they haven’t won a match since November last year. Theirs is a moral victory, a victory for the ages, for women’s sport – for women in every walk of life. Their mere presence at the Fifa Women’s World Cup is a victory in itself, and though the tournament has been a steep learning curve for Banyana, they possess a winning mentality that transcends what they are able to achieve on the field. But they do need to start winning more matches than they lose in order to grow their support base and position women’s football firmly in the hearts of fans and sponsors alike.
And what about Bafana Bafana? What are we to expect of them in the cauldrons of Egypt, five years after Nigeria dumped them out of the Afcon in 2014, and they arrived home to those warm words by Minister Razzmatazz? “Bunch of losers”.
What hope do Bafana have this time around after years of disappointment on the continent? About the same hope as a copy of the Constitution in the halls of Parliament? They may have to steal the damn thing to “win” it.
It’s easy to be cynical and pessimistic about our sporting teams right now. We’re not winning enough right now - and is winning even enough? “It’s not all about winning,” you say, “it’s how you play the game.” But we play to win, right? Right?
Adrian Ephraim is deputy news and sports editor at Eyewitness News. He’s a writer and digital media expert with nearly 20 years in journalism. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianEphraim
This article first appeared on EWN : ADRIAN EPHRAIM: Do Bafana Bafana & the Proteas prove we're a bunch of losers?