Bafana Bafana seek perfect start to World Cup qualification campaign
Bafana Bafana have become a team that qualifies for major tournaments sporadically. They need positive results against Benin and Rwanda as they kick off a bid to play in the Fifa World Cup for the first time since 2010.
Qualifying for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) has increased the self-belief of South Africa’s senior men’s soccer side.
Bafana Bafana, as the team is known, booked their ticket to Ivory Coast for the continental spectacle back in March, following a 2-1 win over Liberia.
As a result, they finished second behind Morocco in Group K, with seven points to show after their four group games. The Moroccans collected nine points in their campaign to win the group.
The trip to Ivory Coast in January 2024 will be a rare major tournament appearance for Bafana Bafana. They failed to qualify for Afcon in 2010, 2012, 2017 and, most recently, in 2022. In 2019, they made it to the quarterfinals after vanquishing hosts Egypt 1-0.
This latest inconsistency in qualifying for Afcon is in stark contrast to what the team managed in the 1990s to early 2000s.
South Africa made their debut in the unforgettable 1996 edition on home soil. They then managed to qualify for every subsequent tournament of the biennial soccer extravaganza — until 2010.
Hunger for the world stage
With the Fifa World Cup coming every four years, Bafana’s absence from that tournament has been even longer than their enforced Afcon sabbatical of four years. South Africa last appeared at the 2010 World Cup, and even then, it was by virtue of being hosts.
In the 13 subsequent years since soccer’s centrepiece event came to Africa for the first and only time to date, Bafana Bafana have been unable to add to the two World Cup appearances that they managed on the trot in 1998 and 2002.
“Each and every game is very important. Each and every game can make you. Each and every game can break you,” Siphiwe Tshabalala, who scored the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup, told journalists from Visa’s offices in Sandton.
The multinational card payment services corporation was announced as a new partner by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in early October 2023. The deal is valid until 2026.
“We are a nation that loves football. We are a nation that has an abundance of talent. And we are a nation that should compete [regularly] at the highest level,” Tshabalala continued.
In the qualification phase for the Qatar-hosted 2022 instalment of the World Cup, they were edged out by eventual group winners Ghana. This was after the two teams finished level on points (13 each), as well as on head-to-head and goal difference.
Ghana moved on to the third and final round of qualifying because they had scored seven goals to Bafana’s six from their six matches. The Black Stars eventually made it to Qatar after leaping over Nigeria on the away goals rule following a 1-1 aggregate score over two legs.
Fortunately, following Fifa’s decision to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48, the gymnastics of previous World Cup qualifiers have been abolished.
This time it is simple. The nine teams that finish at the summit of the nine qualification groups will be heading to the 2026 showpiece, which is set to be co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico.
So, the equation for Bafana Bafana is simple. Finish at the top of the group and qualify. It won’t be easy though. The South Africans are grouped with Nigeria, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Benin.
They face Benin in their opening match of the qualifiers on Saturday, 18 November, at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium. Then three days later they take on Rwanda in the city of Huye.
Former Bafana Bafana striker Shaun Bartlett believes Bafana Bafana must do everything possible to book their World Cup ticket — even if they don’t play the best soccer.
“When it comes to results … that’s what it’s all about. Sometimes you don’t need the best performance in order to get results. In order to qualify for the World Cup, that’s what we need to do. We need to get points on the board. That’s important,” Bartlett said to journalists from the Visa offices.
“There will be a bit of nerves for some players that have not played in a World Cup qualifier before. There should be nerves, because it shows that you care about what you’re doing.”
Ahead of those two crunch qualifiers, South Africa will be without several key players, owing to injury. Mamelodi Sundowns duo Grant Kekana and Thapelo Maseko are nursing injuries, as is France-based striker Lebogang Mothiba.
Another internationally based forward, Lyle Foster, will also be absent for the two games. Foster is undergoing treatment for mental health struggles and will be out of action indefinitely.
Regardless of these absentees, coach Hugo Broos and his men are eyeing maximum points from both games. Whether they can accomplish the feat depends on which Bafana Bafana team decides to turn up on the day. DM
Bafana Bafana World Cup qualifiers
South Africa vs Benin – Saturday, 18 November (3pm)
Rwanda vs South Africa – Tuesday, 21 November (3pm)