Blank canvas for Bafana Bafana at Afcon as they hope to banish the past and go all the way

Blank canvas for Bafana Bafana at Afcon as they hope to banish the past and go all the way
Percy Tau during an international friendly between South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo at Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 12 September 2023. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

The beleaguered national team are the underdogs at the Africa Cup of Nations. But this might just turn out well for them.

The Springboks went to France for the 2023 Rugby World Cup under similar pressures of expectation felt by Bafana Bafana as they face the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).

But the burly shoulders of players such as Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and Duane Vermeulen carried this weight with grace. South Africans were more enthralled and captivated as each rugby match passed, and the Boks went on to win their second World Cup on the trot.

South Africa’s senior men’s soccer side, Bafana Bafana, is on the opposite end of that scale. Snide comments such as “that team still exists?” or “I haven’t watched a Bafana match since 2010” follow them like a malevolent shadow.

The fact that South Africa have failed to qualify for Afcon in 2010, 2012, 2017 and 2021 does little to help the team’s reputation. That they have not been to a Fifa World Cup since hosting the soccer spectacle in 2010 compounds the public’s lack of interest.

This group of Bafana Bafana players does not have many stars plying their trade in major European leagues.

This detachment has been visible at Bafana Bafana’s home games, in stadiums so empty you can hear the players breathe. It was most evident when Bafana Bafana beat the Democratic Republic of Congo 1-0 in an international friendly in September 2023. The 37,000-capacity Orlando Stadium was a ghost town during that clash.

Of the handful of supporters who were in attendance, the Congolese outnumbered – and outsang – the South Africans.


Senegal players celebrate after winning the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations final against Egypt in Yaoundé, Cameroon. (Photo: Christopher Onah / Gallo Images)

Fresh start

With all this in mind, the Ivory Coast-hosted 34th edition of Afcon – which runs from 13 January to 11 February – gives Bafana Bafana a blank canvas with which to work.

Whether they paint like a three-year-old in arts and craft class, or with the expertise of their compatriot and global artistic great William Kentridge is entirely up to them.

In Belgian Hugo Broos Bafana Bafana have an art instructor who has taught this class before.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Underdogs Bafana Bafana will lean heavily on Percy Tau during Afcon onslaught

The 71-year-old has been in charge of South Africa’s senior national team since 2021, replacing Molefi Ntseki after he failed to guide Bafana Bafana to Afcon in Cameroon.

Broos famously led a depleted Cameroon side to African glory in 2017. His makeshift side triumphed in spite of a number of European-based players choosing their clubs over doing duty for the national team. 

This group of Bafana Bafana players does not have many stars plying their trade in major European leagues. The two who are, Lyle Foster and Lebo Mothiba, have been ruled out of travelling to Ivory Coast.

The former is continuing his recovery from mental health issues, while France-based Mothiba will be sidelined for months as he recovers from a knee injury. 

In spite of the absence of these key players, Broos believes his team will surprise us all.

Bafana Broos

Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos at a national men’s team media open day at Lentelus Sportsground in Stellenbosch on 8 January 2023. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“It’s an opportunity to show their skills. I said it to the players of Cameroon when we went to Gabon, because everyone asked themselves what this team was going to do. Yet we won the Afcon,” Broos said.

“That means, for [this group of Bafana Bafana players] it’s very important to have great performances, to play well, to go as far as possible,” he added.

The absence of the two key strikers means the responsibility for goals will fall largely on Percy Tau – especially if South Africa is to have any chance of winning a second African title to build on the success of 1996 on home soil.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Afcon a critical opportunity for Hugo Broos to show he’s really the Bafana boss

The former Brighton & Hove Albion forward had an outstanding 2023 with his Egyptian club Al Ahly, as well as individually.

Among his trophy haul for the past year was the Egyptian Premier League and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League. Tau and his Egyptian club also managed to clinch a bronze medal at the Fifa Club World Cup.

For these exploits, Tau was crowned the African Interclub Player of the Year at the 2023 CAF awards, becoming the first South African recipient.

Block the noise

Tau – who made his name at Mamelodi Sundowns and was part of the team that won the 2016 CAF Champions League – says Bafana are fully focused on the task at hand, in spite of their detractors and doubters.

You cannot change people’s views and expectations. What is most important is to work on your abilities.

“Even in the last tournament, when we went to Egypt for the Afcon, we wanted to compete and try our best to go all the way,” Tau told journalists.

In that tournament they shocked host nation Egypt 1-0 in the round of 16, before their run was halted by old foes Nigeria in the quarterfinals.

“We want to go all the way [in Ivory Coast],” Tau said. 

This will be easier said than done. The last time South Africa reached the semifinals of the African soccer extravaganza was in 2000. Since then, combined with failing to qualify, they have had mixed results, including quarterfinal and group-stage exits.

According to sports psychologist Koketjo Tsebe, who worked with Banyana Banyana during their memorable 2023 Women’s World Cup campaign, in such situations it is important for the team to understand the things they can and can’t control.

“You cannot change people’s views and expectations. What is most important is to work on your abilities,” Tsebe said.

Bafana Bafana kick off their campaign against Mali on 16 January, followed by a tussle with Namibia five days later. They finish off their group phase versus Group E favourites Tunisia on 24 January.

If they make it out of the group stages – surely a bare-minimum target – the sky’s the limit for Broos and his men. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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