SA vs Nigeria preview: Can Bafana replicate the hunger that usurped the Pharaohs?

What’s that warm, pleasant feeling flowing through your body, you ask? That’s pride. Pride in a national team that has done something worthwhile to earn your admiration.

Bafana Bafana have struggled to evoke that feeling in us in recent years — beyond a few spurts here and there. On Saturday night, however, this side was worthy of a standing ovation from the entire country.

Reborn as “Bafna Bafna”, they not only booked a quarter-final spot at the African Cup of Nations quarterfinals, but did so by expertly out-playing the heavily favoured Egypt. Despite the incumbent Pharaohs not being very good in the group stages, few thought the hosts would struggle, let alone lose.

Yet, now that the dust has settled, all we can point to is one sublime Mohamed Salah through ball that Trézéguet conspired to shoot straight at the keeper. The rest was all South Africa.

Our reward is a date with old foes Nigeria at the Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday evening.

We’ll be needing some of that rediscovered tenacity. After two Afcons in the cold following their title win on South African soil in 2013, these Super Eagles look hungry and proved their character by besting champions Cameroon 3-2 in the previous round.

China-based striker Odion Ighalo stood particularly tall with his brace, silencing the few doubts that had crept in over his ability to lead the line. With Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi also breaking his Afcon duck, the fear is that Gernot Rohr might be getting his team into tune at just the right time.

Fortunately for Bafana, the tide of history is turning in their favour. Having previously only beaten the Nigerians once, in 2004, Stuart Baxter’s men put in an admirable display in Uyo two years ago to emerge 2-0 victors. That qualifier, and the 1-1 return in Johannesburg, is the reason we’re represented in this competition in the first place.

The question now is whether Baxter will make any changes to the team that was so excellent against Egypt. Given that he refused to make a substitution before the 90th minute last time out, lest he upset the formula he had stumbled upon, the likely answer is no.

Thembinkhosi Lorch at the very least will surely keep his place on the left in attack. You could hear the cries of vindication from thousands of PSL fans when SA’s player of the year slotted neatly into Egypt’s bottom corner. It’s unlikely the Scot will risk their ire once more. Not to mention the attack, which is complemented with the effervescent threat of Percy Tau on the other side, now looks genuinely threatening.

“From the first couple of games we weren’t 100% satisfied with our attacking play,” Baxter said the morning after the win. “The movement around the box was not clear and we had to improve on that. So challenging the players and showing them the movements that we wanted to make was one. Two, we knew playing in Cairo against Egypt in Afcon, there’s going to be the crowd. That was another aspect.

“But probably the most important thing was to play a game that I don’t think Egypt expected us to play. They would have expected us, I think, to play deeper. Therefore, I wanted to press higher. And try in that way to surprise them with that game plan. I think we did it very well and I think it surprised them and I think that helped us to get a foothold in the game.”

The truth is everyone was surprised by Bafana’s relentless outing. Their success in starving Salah et el of meaningful possession was driven by a determination that we’ve seen too rarely of late. If Baxter can find a way to replicate it again by grounding the Super Eagles we might just begin to do something ridiculous, like dream of a final appearance.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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