Sat, 30 May 2020

Cape Town - The doldrums ... that's almost unquestionably where Bafana Bafana have been marooned ever since the rest of the planet effectively jetted out of Johannesburg to bring the fabulous, month-long World Cup party of 2010 to an end.

Nine years ago, their gutsy quest to make it out of the group stage as first-time host nation - ultimately foiled only by Mexico's superior goal difference - did little to dampen the general, so massively tangible countrywide passion around the game's premier event.

Bafana even bowed out with a hint of panache, upsetting prior tournament winners and European giants France in their final fixture at Free State Stadium: South Africans wore their Bafana shirts with pride for the remainder of the tournament, as they watched more traditionally heavyweight powers negotiate the knockout phase.

But when you put your mind firmly to it, the uncomfortable realisation exists in 2019 that the South African national men's team (reminder, 72nd on the rankings, sandwiched between Guinea and China) have never really come close, subsequently, to rekindling that vibe.

There have been successive failed bids - 2014 in Brazil, 2018 Russia - to crack the World Cup finals, and also two post-2010 flops in terms of Africa Cup of Nations qualification (2012 and 2017), although they did attend the 2013 and 2015 versions and made it, as they have already this time, to the quarter-finals on the former occasion.

If that, broadly speaking, doesn't shout "success-starved" by Bafana for almost a decade, then you are so staunchly diehard that your sanity potentially comes into question.

But the unsung South African crew of this year's AFCON, around whom such modest expectations were anticipated until that amazing 1-0 silencing of some 75,000 disbelieving Egyptians on Saturday, are now within one tantalising, further victory of emulating the Bafana side of 2000 who reached the semis in the combined Ghana/Nigeria-hosted event.

Then, the title bid ended against the very same foes - the Super Eagles, in their Lagos stronghold -- that Stuart Baxter's charges do battle with at the last-eight stage in Cairo (21:00) on Wednesday.

Nigeria prevailed 2-0 against a Bafana outfit boasting such gnarly names as Lucas Radebe (Leeds United), Mark Fish (Bolton), Quinton Fortune (Manchester United) and FC Zurich's Shaun Bartlett.

The list of clubs represented in the present SA ranks is indicative of a significantly humbler feel to the Bafana personnel of 2019 ... which would, in many respects, only make another triumph against the odds on Wednesday that much sweeter to digest.

Indeed, if Bafana negotiate this hurdle against traditionally one of the continent's more juggernaut outfits - Nigeria have graced as many as six World Cups - they will come pretty close to sparking the kind of footballing feel-good factor last witnessed in South Africa in that landmark 2010.

If Bafana at very least stirred us from our long-time apathy, and in just as many cases cynicism, with that slaying of host nation Egypt in the Round of 16, an immediate follow-up downing of Nigeria - so often both a bullying and technically superior sort of nemesis to South Africa before - will have us shoot more profoundly upright in our chairs, and perhaps even tumble quite joyously out of them.

It will be confirmation that this group of players have a "something" about them that we really hadn't budgeted for; that the Saturday stunner wasn't simply a flash in the pan, and that perhaps we can even dare to dream of revisiting the once-only pinnacle of 1996, when the Clive Barker-coached, Neil Tovey-led Bafana won AFCON on home soil with Nelson Mandela leading the celebratory dance.

This is still perilously too premature, of course, for President Cyril Ramaphosa to start loosening his limbs and ensuring his shoes are nattily polished: South Africa are consummately not favourites against the Nigerians, whose present crop may not be that country's best ever footballing vintage but will still believe they are well capable of seeing off opponents sporting a mere 14.28 win percentage rate against them (two from 14 prior tussles).

While the dramatic, late Thembinkosi Lorch goal that settled the Egyptian duel was an attacking eye-opener - a combination of width, stealth and clinical passing accuracy in lead-up, plus exquisitely pinpoint finish - the more statistically noticeable feature of this Bafana team in the last year or thereabouts has been its defensive resilience.

In 11 competitive matches stretching back to early September last year, South Africa have kept as many as six clean sheets and conceded only five goals in total.

While I have seen better-organised Bafana defences down the years - the crude, slightly panicked fly-hack to safety has not been entirely absent from them in Afcon 2019 to this point - those figures do suggest a raw desire and strong combined work ethic at the back.

Against that backdrop, I would not expect Baxter to implore his men to press cavalierly forward at every opportunity on Wednesday night; the underdogs are far likelier to adopt a soak-it-up-and-keep-one-eye-on-the-clock sort of formula, potentially aiming to strike against the run of play if such openings come up or drag the fixture to extra time ... and possibly that great old leveller of a penalty shootout.

Puncher's chance? Yes, I believe so, particularly speaking as one who often harbours a weirdly stronger sense of optimism when they play a Nigeria - or even a Netherlands, Argentina - than when they laboriously allow themselves to be dragged down to the same standards as a Lesotho or, ahem, Cape Verde Islands.

By hook or crook, if Bafana nose out this one, they will know that their progression to the last four is an automatic guarantee of "cred" whenever they do return to OR Tambo International.

Bank on it also heralding the urgent dusting-off of plenty of nine-year-long, cupboard-stored vuvuzelas and vehicle flags back in the very distant RSA ...

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