Johannesburg – Despite putting in a relatively decent shift, a defensive South African under-23 side lost 1-0 to a more determined and unwavering Japanese side in their Group A Olympic football opening match at the Tokyo Stadium on Thursday.
From the first whistle, the SA under-23s found themselves struggling to put pressure on their Japanese opponents, especially during one-on-one duels, as they resorted to playing high and long balls that went begging with no one making an effort to test keeper Keisuke Osako.
South Africa’s goalkeeper Ronwen Willams stood between his side and a heavy defeat as he was called to pull off a number of daring saves. Together with captain Tercious Malepe, who marshalled the defence, saved their side the blushes on a number of instances.
Key amongst his daring stops was the one he made in the 33rd minute when his agility came to the fore, stretching to tip the ball out for corner kick.
A few seconds before the break the South African side got the first of rare corner kicks of this Olympic encounter, compared to the Japanese tally that was well over four corner flag spot kicks.
Coach David Notoane’s side found itself on the back foot for the better part of the first half but looked a shade better in the second stanza.
Both sides seemed rather cautious not to commit silly mistakes and be caught on counter-attacks after the break as the Asians continued taking their chances.
The Japanese however found Williams up to the task, continuing from where he left off before the break.
The host side enjoyed more ball possession after the restart and their unrelenting probing into South Africa’s danger area paid off when Take Kubo received a long overhead pass, controlled the ball and unleashed it past the diving Williams.
South Africa resorted to closing the spaces to avoid losing by a bigger margin as the match progressed.
After breaking the deadlock the hosts did not sit on their laurels but tried increasing their tally while the South African defenders were called upon to make crucial stops with the sole purpose of keeping the score-line as decent as possible, going into second pool match against France on Sunday.
This is South Africa’s third appearance in Olympic football after admission into international football in 1992.
In Sydney 2000 in Australia, the side coached veteran mentor Shakes Mashaba, lost 2-1 to Japan, convincingly beat Brazil 3-1 but lost to Slovakia 2-1 to bow out in the first round.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics in Brazil, the boys from Mzansi played to a goalless draw against the hosts, lost 1-0 to Denmark and draw 1-1 with Iraq under the guidance of coach Owen da Gama but failed to reach the knock-out stage.
From now on it will be an uphill battle for SA under-23s and nothing less than victories over France and Mexico would earn the South Africans a passage to the all-important knock-out round.
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