Africa’s main football powerhouses consist of Senegal, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, and Ghana. You could make the case for Burkina Faso, as they rank above Ghana and recently earned third place in the 2021 AFCON. You could reasonably point out the DR Congo as a contender, based on its talent production. But South Africa, with its exciting domestic league and rising young national team core, could be right along with any African nation in terms of success and prestige if things go their way.
Whilst many fans will only remember South Africa’s AFCON-winning campaign in 1996, the second-place finish in 1998, or even the 2010 World Cup team that nearly qualified for the round of 16 had it not been for Mexico’s superior goal difference. But this team, headed by new blood and grizzled vets, a wise coach with a lengthy roadmap, and some howling fans ready to walk with the South African team every step of the way, will certainly be one to track.
South Africa’s Shortcomings
Although the South African team achieved worldwide recognition with their solid performances in the later 1990s, they first started playing as a British colony in the 1910s, and later in the 1950s, fielding teams themselves. Yet, their history was overshadowed by South Africa’s dark history of apartheid.
Due to apartheid, South Africa could only send a full-white or a full-black team to the first-ever planned AFCON. FIFA and CAF promptly banned the South African team from all major competitions. After the Soweto Uprising in 1976, FIFA banned competitive games between South Africa and outside nations until apartheid was abolished.
With apartheid being banned (only in name) in 1992, they struggled to adjust to their new opposition, missing out on two straight AFCONs. But after 1996, when they hosted AFCON and earned automatic qualification, things changed. The footballers attribute their 1996 success to the presence of Nelson Mandela.
“Even now, just talking about the great man Mandela gives me goosebumps. Every time we met him, shaking his hand, it was like he gave something to you,” Charlton striker Shaun Bartlett told the BBC. “The only downside was that you had to wake up at half past four in the morning because he was still in that routine from when he was in prison. He woke up early and went for a walk. So we had to wake up to meet him at five.”
South Africa toppled teams like Cameroon, Algeria, Ghana, and Tunisia on route to their first-ever AFCON. They nearly did it again in 1998 in Tunisia, beating Morocco and DR Congo before tragically falling short against Egypt in the finals. They claimed bronze in 2000 Ghana-Nigeria, beating DR Congo, Ghana, and Tunisia en route to their third podium finish in three editions.
They even performed in two World Cups; 1998 and 2002. 2002 brought the most success, as South Africa drew with Paraguay, beat Slovenia, and pushed Spain to the limit in an entertaining 3-2 shootout. Yet the late 1990s seemed to be South Africa’s climax. After the immortal group of players, like Lucas Radebe, Bartlett, Phil Masinga, and more, moved on, South Africa struggled to replace them.
The nation was negatively affected by living on past glories…they could not see past winning the AFCON. Mentally wise South Africa felt they had completed football,” sports journalist Aphendulwe Ndzunge said. “Therefore the next generation of players felt under pressure if they had to compare or compete with the AFCON winning team.”
South Africa fell slowly, but it still hurt the same. With South Africa’s players slowly leaving, aging, or retiring, their AFCON performances faded, and they stopped qualifying for World Cups. Many pinpoint South Africa’s failures after their AFCON success due to their lack of coaching talent. Although Bafana Bafana had players like Siphiwe Tshabalala and Itumeleng Khune in their ranks, they could not use them to their full power.
Even though many fondly remember the ecstatic vuvuzelas, their shock 2-1 win over favorites France to bounce them out of the competition, and Tshabalala’s iconic opening goal when they hosted the 2010 World Cup, South African football was truly in a dark place.
South Africa rebounded from their failures by looking towards grassroots campaigns and increased involvement in youth competitions. The 2015 U-17 team finished second in their AFCON. In 2019, the U-20s finished third in their AFCON. The U-23s finished third in their own AFCON in 2019. In addition, they instituted many policies to bring in more local coaches.
“They started implementing age restrictions in the second division leagues, meaning that a team was forced to field a minimum of 6 under 21 y/o on their first XI,” Ndzunge said.
Secondly, they implemented a 5-max foreigner rule in their top division. Teams were only allowed to register 5 foreign players. That forced teams to invest more in their local talent. From there on, Premier Soccer League teams also started trusting more into their own local coaches for South Africa’s football identity. That brought a local flavor to our soccer league and national team.
AFCON in Sight
After a successful qualifying session, South Africa is now set to head to the 2023 AFCON. After going up two goals at home thanks to a Foster brace, they fumbled their lead to #148 Liberia thanks to a Tonia Tisdell goal and a stoppage-time equalizer from Accrington Stanley’s Mohammed Sangare. However, they broke through in Monrovia to clinch qualification to AFCON.
Bafana Bafana again took the lead early thanks to Zakhele Lepasa’s 19th-minute goal. Despite William Jebor’s strike in the 35th minute, a 53rd-minute winner from Mabhuti Mayambela took South Africa through to the 2023 AFCON, their first appearance since their exploits in Egypt four years back.
A common theme between those games was South Africa’s dominance. South Africa had 27 shots and nine on target between the two games. They did not have much of the ball, as Liberia held 62% of the possession in the second game. Yet, they used their robust, dynamic front line to launch frequent counter-attacks on the Liberians.
With the exciting core of Lyle Foster (Burnley), Percy Tau (Al Ahly), Ronwen Williams and Cassius Mailula (Sundowns), and Bongokuhle Hlongwane (Minnesota United) in tow to take part in the 2023 AFCON in the Ivory Coast, South Africa’s youth, good coaching, and great form makes them an exciting team to watch.
This team can win a few games, if not forge a deep run into the later stages of AFCON. The last time Bafana Bafana appeared in the AFCON was in 2019 in Cairo, as South Africa beat the hosts in the round of 16 before bringing a stacked Nigeria team to the limit before bowing out to a William Troost-Ekong goal. South Africa can make it to the quarterfinal, or even go beyond as they prepare for their most important test yet.
“Let me put it this way…SA football is in a different direction. Women’s football is souring, we’re African champs in club and country. The men also qualified for AFCON, and we’re pushing to qualify for the World Cup now. Our U17 team is currently playing in AFCON U17 as we chat. The men’s soccer teams are both still in the running for the Champions League and Confederation Cup. We are just pushing the right buttons,” Ndzunge says.
By: Deolu Akingbade / @AkingbadeDeolu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Phill Magakoe / AFP