Former Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe believes the current crop of national players have all the makings of a group that will match or even surpass his generation.
Names like Radebe, Neil Tovey, David Nyathi, Shoes Moshoeu, Eric Tinkler and Helman Mkhalele are revered today for delivering the nation its greatest football triumph to date: winning the Confederation of African Football’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in 1996.
The same squad won silver at the subsequent tournament in Burkina Faso and bronze in Ghana in 2000, but since then no other South African generation has lifted the trophy in Africa’s biennial showpiece.
Bafana Bafana assemble in Johannesburg on Sunday ahead of their World Cup qualifier game against Cape Verde, where they play against the islanders in their capital, Praia, on September 1. They then face off again in Durban four days later.
At a ceremony to honour the 1996 squad at Sun City last weekend, Radebe was quick to heap praise on the current generation. He said that Bafana beating Nigeria in Uyo a few months ago was a clear sign that they could be the real deal.
“We had strong characters in our team,” said Radebe. “I think we also had a spine, when you consider that André Arendse in goals was a big boy. We also had equally bigger boys in central defence, while Eric Tinkler in the midfield was colossal, and both Phil Masinga and Shaun Bartlett were intimidating.”
Afcon-winning coach Clive Barker said that, apart from the undoubted skill on display, a sense of family had played a huge role in their success. “I remember attending the 1994 Africa Nations Cup finals in Tunisia,” said Barker.
“And one journalist asked me how I felt as the hosts of the next tournament and I informed them that we would not only host a successful tournament, but we would win it as well. I might have said it in jest, but the enormity of what I had said suddenly sunk in when we played Cameroon in the opening match. Even after we had won 3-0, it did not really sink in what we [had] achieved until the last four, when we defeated Ghana 3-0 in the semifinal.”
Masinga enjoyed a love-hate relationship with South African supporters in those days, much as Thami Gabuza does now. Gabuza has skill and is physically imposing, but too often lacks the deft first touch. This infuriates supporters, who take out their frustrations on him when things do not go well for Bafana.
“He is a strong lad and he must develop a thick skin,” said Masinga of Gabuza. “He must never drop his head, even when the booing can get to a stage where he feels like giving up. He must continue to work hard and always remember that he does not play for himself or for his club, but for the country, and that requires a lot of sacrifice.”
South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan said that, despite sporting isolation that lasted the better part of 40 years, the class of ’96 had exceeded all expectations.
“We never played international football, even when cricket and the Springboks were engaged in rebel tours and such like. Football was totally isolated and, while other Africans grew and developed, we remained in isolation and only played among ourselves.
“Yet, four years after readmission, we won the Afcon. I simply wonder how far football in this country could have advanced and developed had we not been suspended and then banned for so many years. But now that we are back in the international fold, we have to make the most of it.”
As for now, South Africa could get one foot on the plane to Russia 2018 if they win both their qualification matches against Cape Verde next week.