Under23 coach Owen da Gama has praised the cooperation between SAFA and PSL after South Africa won bronze and also a place in the 2016 Rio Olympic.
Owen da Gama’s boys beat hosts Senegal 3-1 on penalties after the third place playoffs clash ended in a goalless draw on Saturday, 12 December at Stade Leopold Sedar Senghor.
South Africa also walked away with the Fair Play Award. Nigeria won the tournament after defeating Algeria in the final. Both sides have also qualified for the Olympic Games.
SA u23 head coach Owen Da Gama reflected on the tournament with SAFA Media.
Safa: Congratulations for the qualification, how are you feeling?
Owen da Gama: I am feeling very ecstatic but I am happier for the players. I am more pleased for the SAFA hierarchy – the President, the CEO, our head coach Shakes Mashaba, these are the people who started it all, these are the people who made it possible for me to be here. How can I forget the Chairman of the PSL Dr Irvin Khoza and the entire PSL management. A decision was taken that all football will stop during this period to make it possible for us to have a good chance of qualifying for Rio, and thanks to them for that. We said it when we qualified for the CAF u23 AFCON after defeating Zimbabwe that if it was not for them, we would not have been here. And now we are saying it once more if it was not for the PSL we would not have qualified for Rio. Most importantly thanks to the Almighty for guiding us throughout this journey. Coach Shakes Mashaba always say there is nothing wrong with losing, yes we all want to win, but there will always be one winner on a particular day. He said it’s about what you do when you fall down. Fall down, learn something and move on.
Safa: So decision by the PSL to stop all matches was a masterstroke.
ODG: Indeed it was. We always say the success we have is through our leadership at SAFA, the leadership at the PSL. It has turned out to be good for South African football because everyone is looking at us and asking what are the leaders in South Africa doing and I can safely say the leadership in our country’s football is something special.
Safa: How much belief did you have in this team after you selected it that it would bring such results?
ODG: First and foremost its important that that was done by a collective – Mashaba, Thabo Senong, Molefi Ntseki, Lucky Shiburi, Deshi Baktawer, Shaun Bartlett and Cameron Cox – these are the people who made it possible. We consulted collectively, and we agreed on it. There were players that we wanted like Lebogang Mothibi, he was almost guaranteed. There were doubts about Lebogang Phiri. Mothibi was our top striker but at the last minute there were problems at his team and couldn’t come, but at the end of the day it showed the resolve in our team. It showed the intellect within the group how we can come together and choose the team, so it was not about me. The collective believed in this team – we spoke to Shakes Mashaba before and after every match. That for me is good when the head coach of the senior team is involved in every aspect of our football.
Safa: Were you happy with preparations coming to this tournament?
ODG: It is important not to make excuses, but ensure that once you have achieved something you can reflect. We had not played a West African team coming to this tournament, and that for me is crucial. We have to be exposed to every part of the continent and it would have been great had we played one of them prior to this competition. We need to get exposure, we were not here just to make up the numbers, and we were here to make sure that we make a meaning contribution not only to the tournament but also to our football. Players make mistakes, coaches same thing but the important thing is how do we regroup after that. After we lost to Senegal we sat for two days in the boardroom analyzing and trying to find a way forward and we came back to win the next two games. We lost the following against Algeria. We sat again and put in so much hard work, and reflected on our play. I think the resolve has been very important for us.
Safa: As you mentioned, we didn’t start the tournament well….
ODG: At the end of the day it’s the resolve as I mentioned. It’s how you start, how you regroup, how you plan, how you tactically apply yourself and I must say my co-coaches have been superb in that they put in so much work and at the end of the day I have also learned a lot from them. We were humble enough to approach other coaches and ask where we got it wrong. We have to take Africa to another level and so it was important to speak to the other coaches like the Nigeria and Algeria coaches. Coming back to your question, our country has taught us a lot – never ever give up – resolve, resistance and fighting spirit. We used that as our guidance telling ourselves that we are a great nation, we can get out of difficulties and we have proved that. We started badly but we moved on and here we are today celebrating. The Algeria coach told us that they played seven matches in Europe in preparation for this tournament – and encouraged us to do so. We need the exposure because it drives character.
Safa: Where do you think was the turning point for South Africa in this tournament to say we are in line for Rio?
ODG: I think the turning point for us was after we lost to Senegal in the opening match. We had gone unbeaten for some time before the tournament and we had not met a West African opposition. We come here and lost, and that was our eye-opener. It opens up attitude towards the game and you experience something different. After we lost to Senegal I sat with coach Ntseki (who was at the u17 FIFA World Cup) and coach Senong (who was at the u20 African Youth Champs) and checked what went wrong and how can we rectify it. That was for me the turning point. We agreed that to turn things around let’s do XYZ, and it worked for us.
Safa: The Senegal match, how was it?
ODG: Prior to the match I had butterflies, I never slept. I sat on the bed with different papers trying to see what solutions we can have for this big clash. How do I present my case to the other coaches when we meet, and that is the resolve I am talking about. The other coaches also had a sleepless night but what is nice is that once we took a decision that this is the route we are taking, we stuck to it.
Safa: Speaking about Jody, he was just fantastic on the day
ODG: Yes, he was exceptional. During our meeting prior to the game I asked all the players to switch on for the match, I know he was the first to do so. It showed the character he has, the quality he possesses. At the game he proved to be something special. During the tournament everybody was talking about Keagan Dolly, Menzi Masuku, Gift Motupa but no one was talking about Jody. We kept faith in him especially after he conceded two against Algeria and the lesson there is that if you keep faith in something they tend to do better, and that’s what happened to Jody.
Safa: We have also won the Fair Play Award at this tournament?
ODG: It is testament to the way South Africans are, it is testament to being like the father of the nation, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. We speak about humility and to win a Fair Play trophy, is just reward.
Safa: We have conceded seven goals in five matches, does that bother you?
ODG: Of course it bothers us a lot. I must make it clear that it was the first time that Rivaldo Coetzee came to play for us and it took time for him to build a relationship with Kwanda Mngonyama. We are aware of it and we will fix it. There is one thing about us; we believe in the people that we select and encourage them up until the last minute.
Safa: Where to next?
ODG: It is important to sit again as a collective and plan things thoroughly. We need to present a formal plan to our leadership to say this is how we would like to prepare for the Olympics and take it from there.
Safa: There has been talk about using over-aged players at the Games, will you go that route?
ODG: Right now we have to savour the moment we have achieved. We need to go back and sit again with relevant stakeholders and discuss this thoroughly and make a decision we think is best for the country. The success that we are enjoying now is because of the collective, so I cannot stand here as an individual and make an announcement on that matter.
Safa: Banyana Banyana and SA u23 qualifying at the same time, must be proud?
ODG: That is fantastic history and that we are the second South African team to qualify for the Olympics in 15 years. It is also history that we have for the first time qualified with Banyana Banyana for the Games at the same time. It is also history for the boys because it is the last opportunity for all of them bar one, Phakamani Mahlambi, to qualify for the Olympics. But we were not looking to making history but just to qualify and take our football to another level.
Safa: South Africans have been behind this team, your message to them?
ODG: We are so happy for our country, our people, who have been the driving force for this team. I got 300 text messages of congratulations, and my phone has been ringing off the hook. The South African people pushed these boys to achieve greater heights because they believed in them so I would like to take this opportunity from the bottom of my heart to thank the South African public because without them we would not have achieved this.
Safa: Your festive season message?
ODG: It has been a long year, it has been a hard year but we fought very hard and we have achieved our objective of qualifying for Rio. Let me take this opportunity to wish all South Africans, football lovers and followers in particular, the best festive break. We hope with our qualification we have contributed to making this one of the best holidays. Let us be safe on the roads and don’t drink and drive. On behalf of the entire SA u23 players and staff, I would like to wish you a Merry Xmas and a Prosperous New Year. Thank you once again for the support, let us do this again next year as we continue with the road to Rio.