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'The Boys' of South Africa Face a Man-Sized Job

By William Gildea
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, June 12, 1998; Page D9

 Philippe Troussier returns to his native France as coach of South Africa's World Cup team. He is South Africa's third coach in the past year. (Doug Mills/AP)
MACON, France — Ah, you've heard about the fabulous high-speed trains in France, which sweep gloriously through the countryside, whisking one from the pleasures of Paris to the Cote d'Azur. We were heading south Thursday morning to meet up with "Bafana Bafana," Zulu for "The Boys" — South Africa's soccer team, which will make its first World Cup appearance Friday night against France. Sitting here next to the tracks on the edge of a lovely meadow caused one to wonder if "The Boys" were having any better luck making it to Marseille from their headquarters in Vichy.

Vichy came highly recommended by one Philippe Troussier, South Africa's coach. Vichy is Troussier's home town. Troussier is South Africa's third coach this year. People around the world lose patience in a hurry if their soccer team doesn't perform up to their standards — just as quickly as these passengers whose train stopped unexpectedly. The French began puffing their cigarettes furiously in the smoking car so that it was filled with a thick blue haze. First it was the Air France strike. Now the TGV, although the conductor said that this wasn't a strike but a "technical problem."

Two South Africans with "Bafana Bafana" T-shirts sat next to their baggage while eight boys began kicking around a soccer ball in a field. It was a brisk sunny day. The big orange TGV had ground to dead zero next to a quaint train station, which was far too small to hold all the unexpected visitors who had been told to get off.

Afzal Patel of Johannesburg, a financial consultant, said that he and his friend were as thrilled as anyone back home about South Africa's first appearance on the world stage of soccer. They'd been in Paris most of the week and thought they'd left for Marseille in plenty of time. He looked down the track but nothing was coming.

The French promised a new train. It's because the French are resourceful that South Africa hired Troussier to lead "The Boys" over the past few months. Patel thought Troussier's predecessors had been treated unfairly. "Clive Barker did all the work," Patel reasoned.

Another South African coach, Jomo Sono, who once played in New York for the North American Soccer League's Cosmos, lasted a month. Troussier had held the job only briefly when players criticized him for conducting overly strenuous practices, but Troussier told them he had to prepare them for the difficult times ahead in the World Cup. With that, "The Boys" settled down.

Troussier himself had been fired recently. The Nigerians bounced him after he'd led them into the finals, but he's had so much success as a coach during the past 10 years in Africa that he's been nicknamed the "White Witchdoctor."

Troussier certainly owes a nod or more to Barker, because Barker persuaded oversensitive striker Phil Masinga to return to the team after he'd quit because fans booed him. Masinga, besides scoring, has helped develop a bright prospect named Benni McCarthy. There's one other player who helps Masinga and McCarthy put the ball in the net and that's a midfielder who played for Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew in 1996 and '97, the wily Doctor Khumalo.

Patel considered these talents as we took in the sun, stranded in a place that looked peaceful enough for one to consider an extended stay. "Our players are amateurs compared with some of these teams," Patel said. "Our team has done well to get this far." Surely, "The Boys" would manage the last miles from Vichy after traveling enormous distances literally and in the world of soccer. South Africa has been back in the international game for only six years, following three decades of apartheid-induced isolation.

"Bafana, Bafana" won the African Nations title in a major upset in 1996, surprising Tunisia in the championship game. They clinched a place in the World Cup last August with a victory over Congo. Both times, Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg was filled with 80,000 fans rooting for a racially mixed team in a national harmony of horns, whistles, shouts and songs. South Africa President Nelson Mandela has credited the team with lifting spirits and fostering friendship among the races.

Mandela had the players to tea at his home one day last month and wished them good luck in France. "Godspeed," he told "Bafana, Bafana." "I don't have the slightest doubt you will return with honors."

With that, "The Boys" traveled to Argentina, where they lost, 2-0. They played rough with their more gifted opponents, drawing one red card and four cautions, and Troussier said that he liked his team's attitude. He also was pleased with the play of midfielder John Moshoeu, known as "Shoes." Troussier has named 17 foreign-based players to his squad; they have some necessary connection with South Africa, plus that all-important international experience. From Argentina they flew to Stuttgart to play two German clubs and Iceland. Then they moved into Vichy.

South Africa has yet to beat a South American or European national team, but obviously there would be no finer time for "The Boys" to break that streak than Friday night in Marseille against, of all teams, France. "All the pressure will be on France," said Patel, as passengers received bits of information on how the TGV riders would be rescued. There was conflicting word on when the next train with available seats would stop, with estimates ranging from 30 minutes to sometime in July. Neither extreme proved accurate, as in about three hours a train came in from Lyon and had plenty of room.

"Maybe the team will do well," said Patel, encouraged as he picked up his bags and prepared to board. "This is the World Cup, and anything can happen."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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