Sport

AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS

How Bafana Bafana learnt the art of shutting out noisy naysayers in quest for Afcon glory

How Bafana Bafana learnt the art of shutting out noisy naysayers in quest for Afcon glory
Teboho Mokoena of South Africa celebrates his goal during their Africa Cup of Nations match against Morocco at Laurent Pokou Stadium in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, on 30 January 2024. (Photo: ©Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

Bafana Bafana are into the Africa Cup of Nations semifinals. This should silence their critics.

When Bafana Bafana lost their first match of the ongoing 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) 2-0 to Mali, the team’s detractors and naysayers brought out their loud-hailers and were ready to write them off.

“Typical Bafana Bafana” was the sentiment on social media. “The pilot must keep the aeroplane idling at the airport. The boys will be home soon,” some said.

Failure to qualify for Afcon in 2010, 2012, 2017 and 2021 has done little to help the public’s perception of the team. That they have not been to a Fifa World Cup since hosting the tournament in 2010 compounds the general lack of interest in Bafana Bafana.

The team played exceptionally well in the first half of that disappointing loss to the Eagles of Mali. However, they failed to capitalise on their chances. The Malians were not in such a wasteful mood and punished Bafana’s profligacy. Was this the end of Bafana’s tournament? 

“Nobody gave us a chance after the first game we lost to Mali. But we came back strong, improved and worked very hard to be where we are now,” said midfield magician Teboho Mokoena after South Africa ousted Morocco, Africa’s No 1 ranked side, in the round of 16.

Bounce-back ability

The team’s Belgian coach was not overly critical of his side after they fell to Mali, saying they played well. If only they had taken their chances before the Malians awoke from their first-stanza slumber.

The game was gone though. So were three precious points. But there was no purpose in dwelling on it. So Hugo Broos and his men dusted themselves off and tried again.

This time they had their scoring boots firmly on, thrashing neighbours Namibia 4-0 in their second match. This victory was a statement from the team. They were not to be written off just yet.

Before that emphatic win, there were doubts the South Africans could topple Namibia after the latter downed pre-tournament Group E favourites Tunisia 1-0 to earn their first-ever Afcon victory.

But Bafana brought the Namibians down to earth with a thud, while propelling themselves up.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shooting stars that have fuelled Bafana’s impressive Afcon run — from Mokoena to Mothwa

Then there was one last hurdle: the wounded and desperate Tunisians. After their defeat to Namibia and a draw against Mali, the Tunisians knew that nothing but victory against Bafana Bafana would keep their Afcon hopes alive. Any other result would see them eliminated.

Broos, fully aware of this, set up his team to frustrate the Tunisians. “Break down our wall if you dare” was the message for that match. A draw for South Africa would be enough to see them move on to the knockouts. But if an opportunity came to score, they would take it.

Ultimately, the contest ended in a drab 0-0 stalemate. But the job was done for Bafana Bafana. They were through to the knockouts. It was the minimum mandate the team had set for itself, the maximum being to win the whole thing.

Bafana

Mothobi Mvala of South Africa (centre) celebrates with teammates after their Africa Cup of Nations round-of-16 match against Morocco at Laurent Pokou Stadium in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, on 30 January 2024. (Photo: Gavin Barker / EPA-EFE / BackpagePix)

Bye-bye bogeyman

Then they were drawn against Morocco in the round of 16. Since becoming the first African nation to reach the semifinals of a World Cup in Qatar 2022, the Atlas Lions had attained bogeyman status. They were the “it” team, in spite of having won the Afcon only once in their history, back in 1976.

Again, the loud-hailers were out to announce doom and gloom. Bafana Bafana were definitely heading home now. The “bogeyman” would send them running and screaming back to South Africa. For sure.

Nevertheless, Broos and his troops were not scared of the intimidating Moroccans. They were the only team to have tamed the Atlas Lions after the Arab nation’s historic foray into the last four of the World Cup, beating them 2-1 in June 2023. A year earlier, Bafana Bafana had lost by the same scoreline against Morocco.

However, the South Africans boasted three wins to Morocco’s two from past battles. They were not afraid. 

“The first time we played Morocco [during my tenure], we were not ready. We were building. If you look at the players who played against Morocco [in 2022], there’s a big difference compared to the team that is playing now. We are not the same team any more,” Broos said before his team’s hard-fought 2-0 win, which shattered Morocco’s dream of doubling their Afcon tally.

“We believe in ourselves. That’s the big step we’ve made in the last few months. We know what we can do. We’re not afraid of the game [against Morocco].”

And his players did the job to carry on fighting for another match in Afcon, which is taking place in Ivory Coast. Their next date was with Cape Verde – and they emerged victorious.

Read more about Bafana’s narrow win here: Bafana sneaks into Afcon semis with Williams’s goalkeeping heroics

Swimming with sharks

Compared with Morocco, the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde are tiny. Their best Afcon showing is reaching the quarterfinals in 2013, which they have matched in this Afcon. Bafana Bafana, one-time African champions, will do well not to underestimate them.

Knowing Broos, it is unlikely that Bafana Bafana will fall into the trap of complacency. The 71-year-old Belgian knows how to win Afcon. He and a crop of unfancied Cameroon players submarined to African glory in the 2017 edition in Gabon.

Though the experienced manager is loath to compare his experience in Cameroon to his time in South Africa, he did say there are some similarities.

“Comparing teams is always difficult because circumstances are different too,” he said. “But, on the other side, when you see a little of what we did with Bafana, and I compare that with Cameroon seven years ago, it is a little bit the same.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Team of 2024 aims to emulate Bafana’s greatest Afcon victories

The most common similarity is the fact that, in both countries, Broos’s methods were questioned. In the eyes of many South African football lovers, the Belgian might as well be a mad scientist. It was the same during his tenure in Cameroon.

“When we went to Gabon… everyone asked themselves what this team is going to do in Gabon. And we won Afcon,” Broos said.

He will be hoping that another similarity will be Bafana Bafana emulating the Indomitable Lions and playing all the way to African glory.

But there are a few more hurdles the team must clear before that can become a realistic dream. DM

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

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