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Sports Editor
(At Mavuso Sports Centre)

MANZINI – If sadness was a person, you had to look no further than crest-fallen national team, Sihlangu head coach Kostadin Papic here yesterday.

Pacing up and down around the Mavuso Sports Centre arena like a retrenched watchman with teary eyes, the inconsolable amiable Serbian coach walked like a grizzly bear in urgent need of a root canal surgery.

His disconsolate state just mirrored the feelings of the less than 500 local soccer fans who watched in dismay the national team suffer its most embarrassing defeat in history.  Djibouti national team, with just two wins in 22 years against South Sudan on March 22, 2017 in an AFCON 2019 qualifier and Sihlangu 2-1 last Wednesday, had caused one of the biggest upsets of the 2022 World Cup Qatar qualifiers by holding the local side to a goalless draw, which became enough to send them through to the Group stages for the very first time.

Four years ago, Sihlangu Semnikati had trashed the ‘Shoremen’ of the Red Sea 8-1 on aggregate but the tables were turned yesterday as French coach Julien Mette’s game-plan of absorbing the pressure, maintaining a solid defensive unit earned his team the draw they needed to advance to the Group stage.
Countless missed chances, impulsive substitutions left Sihlangu and their motley group of fans wondering what had hit them as a feeble Djibouti national team, who if truth be told would struggle to beat any of our premier league teams, wheeled away in celebration of their biggest achievement since they affiliated to CAF and FIFA in 1994.

For a country with less than a million people, having gained independence from France on June 27, 1977, yesterday’s victory was certainly celebrated wildly in the multi-ethnic nation situated in the horn of Africa. Here are the FIVE things we learnt from yesterday’s shocking exit of the national team, Sihlangu.

Sihlangu’s most
embarrassing defeat ever

Much of the early optimism that has accompanied coach Kostadin Papic’s tenure as Sihlangu coach yesterday – in one fall of the dice – has drifted away with two average performances against one of the weakest teams in the continent ranked 195 by FIFA. Another match, more gnashing of teeth.
Yesterday’s exit from the 2022 World Cup qualifiers at the hands of lowly Djibouti is no doubt the lowest point for Sihlangu in many ways. It’s the most embarrassing defeat since the squad lost 10-0 to Egypt on March 22, 2013.

Papic: If sadness
was a person

“Sometimes football can kill you, real death and you die because of football,” once famously said former Baroka FC coach, Kgoloko Thobejani. A sorrowful Kostadin Papic could well have uttered the same words yesterday after the embarrassing exit of Sihlangu from the 2022 World Cup following a goalless draw with a weak Djibouti side, who took one shot at goal the entire game.

You had to have a heart of a stone not to feel for the inconsolable Papic as he wished the earth could open up and swallow him after the game.
Deep wounds like this take time to heal. Sometimes you know, they never fully disappear and even his worst enemy wouldn’t have liked it to end this way.

‘Goalaphobia’ bigger
malaise than we think

Granted there were lot of grey areas in perhaps the starting line-up; perhaps even the substitutions were impulsive but Sihlangu’s failure to convert the numerous chances created especially at the modest Mavuso Sports Centre is worrying.

This is not just a national team malaise, even local clubs in CAF Inter-club competition are struggling to find the back of the net at the modest venue. This was the 13th match any of our teams have failed to score at Mavuso. It’s a bigger malaise than we think.

Sihlangu lacks leadership

Calls for the return of long serving captain, Tony ‘TT’ Tsabedze into the national team set-up at the ripe age of 36 years reached crescendo after the embarrassing early exit in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers – and with reason. Sihlangu lack leadership on the field. Young Buffaloes captain Siboniso Ngwenya is a nice lad but he lacks the leadership qualities on and off-the-field at this level. Besides, a national team is not a development entity and you cannot buy experience from Pick N’ Pay or Spar.

What value is being added by papic’s assistants?

As the Eswatini Football Association (EFA) picks up the pieces after the embarrassing exit from the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, not only should head coach Kostadin Papic take a fair share of the blame but many questions will be posed on what input is being made by his assistant, Velekhaya Mthethwa, trainer Dennis Fakudze and goalkeeper coach Sipho Dube, who all form part of the technical bench. 

The three are all local lads, who should by now know the strengths and weaknesses of the players better than Papic but it is not clear at this stage what their input is as the squad has now gone 13 games under the Serbian coach without a win.
Questions, questions, questions, questions aplenty........

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