Former Bafana Bafana player Matthew Booth believes the current crop of players have the potential to make waves in Brazil, writes WADE PRETORIUS.
Booth was a member of South Africa’s only other Olympic soccer team in 2000, a team that beat a star-studded Brazil 3-1 in the group phase.
The former Mamelodi Sundowns, Ajax Cape Town and Bidvest Wits defender believes that the pressure of being hosts is something Owen Da Gama’s side can exploit.
‘Oh yes, absolutely. I think Brazil, whenever they play, they feel pressure but even more so because of the fact that they are hosting,’ Booth told SASoccermag.co.za in an exclusive interview.
‘The last time they played South Africa in the Olympics they got thoroughly beaten, so I don’t know if that will be weighing on their minds but I’m sure they will know the history.’
The now 39-year-old is confident that Da Gama’s troops will show the same sort of tenacity that ensured their qualification when they meet the hosts on Thursday despite the attention of the world on the match.
‘There’s always a small amount pressure going into any game, after all you are playing for your country, but it will be nowhere near to what the Brazilians will be feeling. You can certainly be assured that South Africa will go out with a similar attitude to what they’ve shown for Senegal in the qualifiers.’
Comparing the class of 2000 to the class of 2016 is unfair but Booth tips the current squad to make waves in Brazil.
‘[This is] Probably one of the most talented U23 squads I’ve seen, on paper and in terms of their perfomances. They certainly have the ability to cause an upset.’ insists Booth.
SA U23 captain Keagan Dolly has been in inspired form for both club and country over the past season and Booth has no doubts that with his leadership and creativity, those further up the field will have ample chances to trouble the goalkeepers.
‘I would probably say the creativity. I think with the likes of Keagan Dolly being on absolute fire, you know they’ve got the ability to open up most defences.’
Booth, like many other respected observers of the side, has highlighted the team’s fragile defence and is hopeful that Erick Mathoho will bring some stability to the back four.
‘The one, sort of Achilles Heel, on the other hand, is that Mngonyama and Coetzee at the back were not particularly solid during the qualifiers.
‘That perhaps why Owen Da Gama has brought in Mathoho to probably partner with Coetzee to add a bit more experience at the back.’
The question of over-age players has divided opinion from well before the squad’s departure to Rio 2016 and has continued to make the news with former players weighing in on the choices made by Da Gama and his technical team.
Booth has lent his support to Da Gama’s decision to add experience to his squad but laments the absence of Andile Jali in the team’s midfield.
‘If the team had been in preparation for the last four of five years and had been given the opportunity to go into camp on a regular basis, I wouldn’t have included any of the over-age players because you then risk the chance of disrupting the squad. But they haven’t had that luxury, so I don’t think bringing in any over-age players now in this instance is such a bad thing.
‘I would have liked to have seen a full compliment of over-age players. I know they approached Andile Jali but that request was turned down by his club which was very unfortunate because he would’ve made a big difference in the centre of midfield. And then perhaps, someone like Tokelo Rantie because of his pace especially after the injury to Phakamani Mahlambi.
‘To be honest, I wouldn’t have worried about a goalkeeper. We’ve always been quite solid in that department. But, having said that… and it’s a big but… Itu Khune has experience and will instill a lot of confidence among the young team.’
South Africa get their Olympic campaign underway on Thursday when they meet hosts Brazil.