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Mbalula a happy man

Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula is relieved that a South African under-23 soccer squad had been assembled for the coming Confederation of African Football championship.

“It showed great leadership for them [the PSL and SAFA] to have put their differences aside,” he told the team on Wednesday before its departure for Morocco for the final 2012 London Olympic Games qualifier matches.

Sapa reports that as the competition does not fit into the FIFA calendar, overseas and Premier Soccer League (PSL) clubs were not inclined to release players to the SA Football Association (SAFA) despite the importance of the tournament.

“To tell you the truth, I was concerned but I am happy with how the issue panned out,” said Mbalula. The Baby Bafana players were to have left on Monday, but had to leave two days later because it was only on Monday and Tuesday that SAFA managed to finalise the side and arrange visas.

“You must demonstrate maturity when it comes to matters of national interest. That means putting issues aside and to do what’s good for South Africa,” Mbalula said. “They understand that this is about national interest, and not for SAFA, the PSL or Mbalula.”

While the team is not the strongest available, Mbalula said he was positive that coach Shakes Mashaba’s charges would still prove competitive. The players not granted permission to join the national side include Thulani Serero, Kamohelo Mokotjo, George Maluleka, Themba Zwane and Darren Keet. Out with injuries are captain Doctor Mampuru, Ramahlwe Mphahlele and Bongani Ndulula.

Mashaba should be happy that the team will be fairly experienced with Sibusiso Khumalo, Thulani Hlatshwayo and Thandani Ntshumayelo in the side. He has had to fit in three training sessions for the team this week before departure.

“I’m positive and I have a great trust in Shakes, who has played football and is a great father figure to the players,” said Mbalula. “They have the support of the nation. The players must just believe in themselves and I am confident that they can do it, so let’s just give positivity a chance here. “I believe that we are on the verge of making history and have the best youth team that this country has ever produced.”

The tournament starts on Saturday. Baby Bafana will play their first match against the Ivory Coast in Marrakech on Sunday evening. The South Africans are searching for their second Olympic qualification.

Their first was in Sydney 2000, when despite not progressing past the group stages, they beat a strong Brazil outfit. This time, the team have been drawn in Group B alongside Gabon, Egypt and the Ivorians. Group A contains hosts Morocco, Nigeria, Algeria and Senegal.

The two finalists and the third and fourth place winners will automatically qualify for the sporting showpiece. The remaining losing semi-finalists will have a play-off tie with a country from the Asian federation.