JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- Gordon Igesund's coaching abilities will be tested at next month's African Cup of Nations when he has to guide host South Africa to at least the semifinals without its best player and with a squad that barely knows each other.
A successful domestic league coach, Igesund took charge of South Africa's national team in July after the 2010 World Cup hosts failed to qualify for successive African Cups and Pitso Mosimane was let go.
Now without former captain and Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar - who won't go back on his decision to retire from internationals - Igesund has to quickly reorganize a group of players who will only start African Cup preparations three weeks before kickoff.
South Africa opens the tournament on Jan. 19 against tournament newcomer Cape Verde, which eliminated four-time champion Cameroon in qualifying. The players go into a prolonged training camp for the first time under Igesund on Dec. 27.
"We have never practiced free kicks. We never practiced set-pieces,'' Igesund said Tuesday as he outlined a desperately rushed preparation schedule for the home team. "The players don't know each other. They don't know each other's weaknesses and strengths. We haven't done any of that.''
Igesund's job may also depend on the team's performance after the South African Football Association gave him a mandate to reach the last four at the continental championship and qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
Igesund was hired after South Africa's inconsistent and eventually embarrassing spell under Mosimane, which was characterized by the bewildering player celebrations following a 1-1 home draw with Sierra Leone last year.
The team and Mosimane thought the result qualified South Africa for the 2012 African Cup when they needed to win the game.
Igesund has had five friendlies in charge, which included a battling 1-0 loss in Brazil, but has had no time on the training field to blend overseas-based players with his new squad members.
"The players play a match and then they're gone back to their country the next day,'' he said. "I don't think we need to kid ourselves. We all know that circumstances put us in this situation and we never ever said it was going to be an easy task. It's not long enough ... it's not easy but hopefully we can do it.''
Pienaar is also now a lost cause for South Africa's home tournament after the coach indicated he would try and convince the playmaker to reconsider his surprise international retirement, which he announced in October.
"Steven is totally retired from international football. He has to get on with his life at his club and that's it,'' Igesund said.
Without Pienaar, and with injury doubts over leading striker Katlego Mphela and Ajax midfielder Thulani Serero, South Africa will play friendlies against Malawi on Dec. 22, and Norway and Algeria in early January in its rush to get ready for its biggest test since staging the World Cup two years ago.
South Africa needs to prove its expensive hosting of the World Cup has also helped its national team progress.
"It won't take us too long to mold this team,'' said Igesund, who is hoping use South Africa's 1996 African Cup-winning coach Clive Barker and captain Neil Tovey to help prepare his team. "We know that time has been very short but we have to make this thing happen.''