South Africa’s first two matches at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 haven’t gone to plan. The Amajita (The Boys) started with 2-1 and 2-0 defeats by Japan and Italy respectively in Suwon and now face an encounter with South American champions Uruguay in Incheon.
While most pundits have already written them off, there’s one person who certainly hasn’t: captain Repo Malepe.
“I think there’s still a chance for us,” Malepe told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “We really need be focused because we’ve been doing well and we’ve been working hard but we didn’t bring the results. It’s a must win. We have to work extraordinarily hard so that we can get the three points and maybe we can be the best third-placed team, so that we can get to the next round.”
South Africa are competing at the U-20 World Cup for the first time since Egypt 2009, where they were eliminated after the Round of 16, which represented their best ever performance at the tournament.
“Being at a World Cup is a big thing,” Malepe said. “We’re learning. It’s not about all about winning. We’re still young. We have to learn and get the experience. We are very fortunate and honoured to be here. For me, we still have to go back to work.” Spoken like a true captain, with real conviction.
“Playing in these kinds of tournaments is very great exposure for us as youngsters, because there’s many scouts, many teams are looking for U20 players because that’s where maturity starts. Your behaviour on the field always needs to be sharp so that we can represent our country very well. “
Amajita can take some hope from how the country’s campaign went in 2009. Passage to the knockout rounds looked unlikely after a heartbreaking 2-2 draw with United Arab Emirates and a 4-0 defeat by Hungary, but they made it through with a 2-0 win over Honduras in the last group stage match.
“I believe we have learned a lot in this tournament. I’m looking forward so that our fellow U20s will qualify and they can experience the very same feeling we experienced. For me, I still have hope, I still believe that we can make it to the next round.”
In the midst of all the new-found attention and noise that a World Cup brings to a young player, Malepe is able to look at the bigger picture for South African football.
“It’s been a while since we have qualified for this tournament, so for me I hope and believe our U17s can work even harder so that the next generation of players can experience the very same feeling.”