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SA under-23 side turns to a 'hope and prayer' ahead of Mexico showdown in Tokyo

David Notoane, coach of South Africa.
David Notoane, coach of South Africa.
Image: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Even after two defeats‚ South Africa are mathematically not out of the men’s Olympics football tournament‚ but would need to win by three goals against Mexico in their final game at the Sapporo Dome on Wednesday to progress.

That will take some effort from coach David Notoane’s heavily depleted Under-23 team (officially U-24‚ due to the postponement of Tokyo 2020 by a year).

It also will also take an SA national team coach not misreading the rules‚ which‚ worryingly‚ Notoane had‚ saying in his post-match press conference to his side’s heartbreaking 4-3 defeat to France on Sunday that the ruling for teams ending level on points is head-to-head.

It is not. The head-to-head ruling – taking into account results between the teams level on points‚ and which is preferred by the Confederation of African Football (Caf) – is not generally used by Fifa.

It also has not been at the Olympics‚ where if teams end level on points‚ the tournament rules state the next determining factor is the best goal difference‚ and after that most goals scored in the group stage.

Hopefully someone will have briefed Notoane by the time of Wednesday’s kickoff at 8.30pm Sapporo time‚ 1.30pm in SA against Group A’s second-placed side Mexico.

Notoane was right‚ of course‚ after the France game in saying nothing less than a first win for his team‚ and their first points after also losing their opener 1-0 against hosts Japan‚ will do against Mexico.

“We only have one chance‚ which is a win – and then go with a hope and a prayer‚” the SA coach said.

“We knew that France lost by a heavy margin (4-1 in their opening game against Mexico). And I told the players that even if we lost against France it was important to keep the defeat to a low margin because you never know what the permutations will work out to.

“So we lost 4-3 – we have a -2 goal difference. The disadvantage will be that if France lose (against Japan) and we win‚ on a head to head of course we are out.

“So it’s going to be a very difficult situation for us. Because whichever way you look at it‚ it’s first head to head. So it was important to get a result (against France)‚ even if it was a draw‚ and unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

“Maybe we are at a bit of a disadvantage‚ and we have to be honest with ourselves‚ go to the last game‚ play for our pride. We are here to get to the next round‚ but also display the kind of football we know the players are capable of.”

Given the ruling is goal difference‚ if Japan (six points) beat a mediocre France in Yokohama (also 1.30pm SA time)‚ Les Bleus will remain on three points‚ and their goal difference will be worse than their current -2.

If SA (zero points‚ -2 difference) then beat Mexico (three points‚ +2) by three goals‚ the South Africans will have the same points as France and the Central Americans‚ but a superior goal difference.

Of course‚ a win by three goals is a big ask for an SA who have shown the effects of the last-minute withdrawals of five key players just ahead of the tournament‚ plus being unable to secure many European-based players‚ including the overage Percy Tau.

Mexico thrashed France in their opener‚ then lost a competitive match-up 2-1 to the hosts.

SA may still be playing for pride in Sapporo. But if a team that managed to put three past France do get a few more goals under the belt against Mexico‚ it would help if their bench know exactly the permutations needed actually are.