By upsetting favourites Morocco in the Africa Cup of Nations round of 16, Bafana Bafana gave their fans all over South Africa reason for optimism 28 years after their 1996 AFCON triumph that brought the country together shortly after the dawn of democracy.
They now face Cape Verde in the quarterfinals in Yamoussoukro, with an opportunity to advance to their first semifinals since 2000. Should they defeat the Blue Sharks, South Africa will face Nigeria for a place in the final.
The South African Football Association (SAFA) has been heavily criticised for failing to ensure clear development pathways into the senior national team for young players, with former Bafana Bafana striker Nathan Paulse among the most outspoken voices. He persisted with his criticism even when South Africa defeated Egypt 1-0 in the last 16 of AFCON 2019, after which Bafana Bafana lost 2-1 to Nigeria in the quarterfinals and failed to qualify for the subsequent edition.
This time around, Paulse gives SAFA credit for finding a coach in Hugo Broos who has been strong-minded enough to withstand criticism and get South Africa dreaming of a brighter future.
“I still feel that we have to be careful to view the success as a process in its entirety,” Paulse told ESPN.
“If you look at football, can you say that South African football has got a clear pathway? If you are a 10-year-old or 11-year-old boy right now, do your parents have a clear pathway to go from where you are right now and become a pro player, which lends itself to the current success? I don’t think so.
“If you must ask me where this has come from… when we were in Egypt, I remember that piece I wrote [saying that] it’s largely due to the players and I stick by all that. I think the difference now is that I think we have a coach that knows his thing. He has a very strong identity in how he wants the team to play. It’s good. He doesn’t seem to be swayed by any outside influences, which has been commonplace.”
Mamelodi Sundowns‘ success in Africa in recent years has commonly been cited as one of the reasons Bafana Bafana have experienced an upturn in fortunes. Of the starting XI against Morocco, eight play for the Premier Soccer League (PSL) champions, while a ninth — Percy Tau — played there previously.
Sundowns won the 2016 CAF Champions League and have been regular contenders in Africa’s biggest club competition.
“If you look at Sundowns from an analytical point of view, they’ve got top analysts, they’ve got very good very good coaches in different spheres,” former Sundowns assistant coach Farouk Khan told ESPN. “I think that has taken this team to another level.
“Because playing in the continent as well as in the local league, it’s forced [Sundowns] to make sure that their team is prepared at a very, very high level of football. If they didn’t play in Africa, I don’t think they would be as prepared as they are now.”
Khan, who was previously an assistant coach at Kaizer Chiefs — once South Africa’s dominant side — acknowledged, however, that many of Sundowns’ competitors “haven’t kept up with the times”, which has been to the detriment of South African football as a whole.
Paulse agrees, and both also feel, regardless of Bafana Bafana’s success, that it is no easier now than at any point in the past 28 years for young South African players to find clear pathways to the top of the game.
The difference in their opinions comes regarding the impact of Sundowns’ financial might on South African football: Khan says Sundowns are using it effectively to produce quality players, which ultimately serves the national team, but Paulse is skeptical.
“Can you really go and compete against the best in the world when you are buying all the players for yourself? To compete against who,” Paulse said.
“I think what [Sundowns] have done in the short term looks good for them. If you are a player and you play for them, you are happy; but I also know there are players at Sundowns who aren’t happy. My concern for the way they do it is that as much as it looks like it’s good for South African football on the whole, can we say the level of the PSL has improved because of them? I don’t think so.”
Khan says, however: “It would be grossly unfair to say that simply because of their financial power, the team is doing as well as it has. You take a player like Mothobi Mvala. He played at Highlands Park. He’s improved in leaps and bounds, [as well as] so many of the other players that came to them. Players that came to them from SuperSport United were good players and turned out to be excellent players.
“I think a lot of accolades should be given to [Sundowns] for how they have improved those players. I think that a lot of clubs that sign players aren’t really improving those players.”
The midfielder, who scored the game-clinching goal in stoppage time against Morocco, putting Bafana two goals to the good and effectively out of sight, is emblematic of the promise of a golden generation that made the semifinals of the 2017 Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations in Zambia. That team repeated the feat two year later, in Niger, after Mokoena had moved on to the senior national team.
Bafana Bafana are now one step from reaching the same stage at senior level for the first time in 24 years, but Mokoena is the only member of the two U-20 squads currently representing South Africa in Ivory Coast.
There may be much still to fix in South African football at a structural level, but in the short term there is genuine hope that Bafana Bafana can win AFCON.
“If they play as a team tomorrow evening, I am confident we are through to the semis,” Khan said.
“Yes, I think they can [go all the way and win the tournament. In the past, the bigger teams showed their pedigree. This time around, we have seen Egypt falling to the side. We have seen Morocco falling to the side. This is a tournament of underdogs.
“This is a tournament where the team that is most hungry to win the tournament will win the tournament.
“It’s a mental game. Do we have the right mentality? Yes. We’ve had it thus far. We lost to Mali and everybody thought it’s the end of the road, but they stood up. They told themselves: ‘Listen. We’re going to do it.’ That mentality has brought us this far. I just hope that after the win against Morocco, we don’t get complacent.”