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AFRICAN DREAMERS

Despite missed chances, Bafana’s superb Afcon run sparks hope for future continental glory

Despite missed chances, Bafana’s superb Afcon run sparks hope for future continental glory
Bafana's Evidence Makgopa controls the ball during their Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal against Cape Verde at Charles Konan Stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, on 3 February 2024. (Photo: Sydney Mahlangu / BackpagePix)

South Africa’s final-four finish at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations can only be seen as a big success. However, their faulty finishing leaves questions about what might have been.

Bafana Bafana did the improbable and, with one more clinical finish, they would have done the unimaginable. A month ago, few believed South Africa would reach the final four of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).

The doubt is justified, since Bafana did not even qualify for the previous edition of the continental competition in 2022 held in Cameroon. It’s also the first time South Africa have reached the semifinal stage of the tournament since 2000 – 24 long years ago.

But head coach Hugo Broos and his men believed, and they played valiantly, exhibiting tactical fluidity throughout the tournament that has been built over three years under the Belgian mentor.

After an inauspicious start to the tournament, falling 2-0 to Mali in their opening match of Afcon, South Africa hopped back on their horses and made it within one kick of the ball of contesting their first Afcon final since 1998.

South Africa lost 4-2 on penalties – after drawing 1-1 after extra time – to Nigeria on Wednesday, 7 February, at the Stade de la Paix stadium in Bouaké, Ivory Coast.

“We are good and we have to believe that,” Broos said after their semifinal defeat against Nigeria. “This is something I’ve said to the players in the last [few] months: believe in yourself, please. You have the quality, but you have to change some things.

“And they did it… they wanted to progress, they wanted to play good football.”

Bafana

Themba Zwane of South Africa is challenged by Selim Amallah of Morocco during their Africa Cup of Nations clash at Laurent Pokou Stadium in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, on 30 January 2024. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

A rough journey

The build-up to Afcon – outside of a shock 2-0 loss to Rwanda in November 2023 – was sublime for Bafana, as they went un­­defeated for more than a year before the Rwanda setback.

They came into the tournament filled with that confidence before being pegged back early by Mali to revive suspicions of another early exit for the 1996 winners – since 2000 South Africa’s Afcon campaigns have been painted with missed qualifications, group-stage exits and twice reaching the quarterfinals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hugo Broos — Bafana’s divisive yet efficient coach gets SA back on Afcon stage with World Cup in sights

But South Africa proved that their pre-tournament form and qualification for the continental showpiece was no fluke, with a 4-0 thrashing of Namibia.

In Bafana’s final group match, against a determined Tunisia, they revealed another side of their tactical adaptability, displaying pragmatism in place of assertiveness.

Against the North Africans – buoyed with the knowledge that a draw would be enough to see them through to the playoffs for the first time since 2019 – Bafana played the percentages. A com­­fortable 0-0 draw is what they achieved and it was another box ticked for Broos and his men.

South Africa’s best display at Afcon came against Morocco in the round of 16. Against the No 1 side in Africa and 2022 World Cup semifinalists, Bafana were compact in defence and lethal in front of goal.

The team’s chemistry was helped by having up to seven players from the same club, Sundowns, on the pitch at any given time.

The 2-0 victory over Morocco was one of the greatest nights in South African football history and demonstrated that the potential was there to break their long drought at Afcon.

But after producing their most complete and dominant performance in years, South Africa were lethargic and unsure in the quarterfinals against Cape Verde. After the final whistle, Broos admitted it was their “worst game of the tournament”.

Nevertheless, they advanced 2-1 on penalties after four heroic penalty saves by captain Ronwen Williams, after the sides were tied 0-0 after extra time.

Williams also made a stunning save in the 92nd minute of normal time to keep South Africa in the match.

Winning when not playing well is a sign of a good side and South Africa are a good side. The team’s chemistry was helped by having up to seven players from the same club, Sundowns, on the pitch at any given time.

Nigeria’s Super Eagles were the only side standing between Bafana and an Afcon final for the first time in 26 years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Brave Bafana win Afcon battle for bronze as goalkeeper Ronwen Williams saves the day

Bafana were back to their best in the semifinal, creating numerous opportunities to book their place in the final, but fluffed their lines at crunch moments, unable to clip the wings of the Super Eagles.

After a tied 1-1 match on Wednesday evening, Williams could not recreate his penalty-saving heroics, and Bafana had to settle for a third-place playoff.

Fluffing lines

Outside of the four goals against Namibia, South Africa only scored three times – and only twice from open play – in five matches.

Chances were created for Bafana, with 34-year-old attacking maestro Themba Zwane always keen for a through ball, while South Africa’s defenders played delectable direct balls.

Orlando Pirates striker Evidence Makgopa was outstanding at controlling those balls and creating space for those around him with his hold-up play.

Tau was industrious throughout, but the quality expected and required from the right winger was missing.

But those opportunities were fluffed more often than not. Makgopa, having started every match of the tournament, only found the net twice in six matches.

With the absence of Burnley’s Lyle Foster, Percy Tau held the mantle of the side’s talisman in the tournament. Much was expected from the Al Ahly winger, but his campaign was underwhelming by his own high standards.

Bafana

Bafana’s Khuliso Mudau is challenged by Patrick Correia Andrade of Cape Verde during the sides’ Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinal at Charles Konan Stadium in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast, on 3 February 2024. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

Tau was industrious throughout, but the quality expected and required from the right winger was missing.

Instead, South Africa’s goals came from Zwane and midfielder Teboho Mokoena, who each found the back of the net twice.

Nevertheless, Broos remained proud of the performance of his charges, who, despite early detractors, surpassed pre-tournament expectations.

“What they did, the way they performed, not only [against Nigeria], I think you have to be proud as a coach,” Broos said.

Even though the continental trophy will not come back to South Africa on this occasion, Bafana’s performances in Ivory Coast over the past month have reinvigorated belief that it will be back sooner rather than later. DM

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

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