Bafana Bafana head coach Hugo Broos reacts during the Africa Cup of Nations 2024 quarter-final football match between Cape Verde and South Africa at the Stade Charles Konan Banny in Yamoussoukro on February 3, 2024. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)
There is no such thing as a comfortable victory for South African sports teams or athletes. They always have the nation biting its nails when getting a job done.
The Banyana Banyana side looked to be cruising in their Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) final in 2022, but conceded a late goal and kept us on the edge of our seats before they claimed the cup.
The Springboks’ entire Rugby World Cup run last year consisted of closely contested games in which there was just a point between them and their opposition in every single knockout game.
South Africa’s last sporting success, which came in the form of Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Dricus du Plessis, also won his world title by just a point in a very close split decision.
Despite the heart palpitations these athletes caused the country, they all got the job done.
For Bafana Bafana, the expectations at the start of Afcon may have been different to the teams and athletes mentioned above. It may have even been harsh for South Africans to have expectations after they lost their opening game to Mali 2-0.
But, since then, the team has seen off a Namibia side, which was very confident after beating Tunisia in their opener, World Cup semi-finalists Morocco and a Cape Verde team, which topped a group that included Egypt and Ghana.
Bafana Bafana have managed to do this by not conceding a single goal since the two they let in against Mali in their tournament opener.
So the team being in the Afcon semi-finals is no stroke of luck. And South Africans have noted this. That’s why the nation’s expectation has changed. The expectation now is for Bafana Bafana to bring the cup home.
But they face their toughest test of the tournament in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, on Wednesday at 7pm, when they come up against Nigeria.
From a statistical point of view, Nigeria are the only team that are better than Bafana Bafana in this tournament. Nigeria have only conceded one goal in the entire tournament.
Both teams have scored six goals in their five matches, which by no means makes any of these sides free scoring. What it does tell us is the type of match we can expect.
It should be a chess match where both sides will defend well; the midfield battle will be a physical one and both sides will look for the one goal that might be a checkmate.
Nigeria has a number of internationally-based players, but Bafana have shown in this tournament that their players can compete with these players. This has also brought to light the strength of the South African league.
The key battle in this game will come in midfield where Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi and Frank Onyeka will come up against South Africa’s Sphephelo Sithole and Teboho Mokoena.
Both sides are not possession merchants, so these midfielders will not want to win the battle to control the tempo of the game, but they will want to make sure that their hard work can free up those in front of them.
For Bafana, if Sithole and Mokoena can stop the pace of the two in midfield for Nigeria, it can allow Themba Zwane to control the game and create opportunities.
Bafana will also need to be on high alert at the back. Although Mothobi Mvala and Grant Kekana have been excellent at the back, they have yet to face a striker with the attacking prowess of Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen.
Osimehn was Italian club Napoli’s leading scorer last season, guiding the side to their first league title in 33 years.
The striker has only scored one goal so far in this Afcon, but the Nigerian star power doesn’t stop with Osimhen. Ademola Lookman’s natural ability to find the back of the net has come to the fore for Nigeria in the knockout rounds; he has scored three goals in the last two matches.
With Nigeria lining up with three at the back, the South Africans will have to stay disciplined. Both Percy Tau and Thapelo Morena will have to do their defensive duties if they are to stop the effectiveness of Nigeria’s wingbacks.
Bafana have been good at nullifying opposition threats during the tournament. They did it against both Morocco and Cape Verde. This caused both sides to then lose shape and allowed Bafana Bafana to take advantage in an offensive sense.
The keyword for coach Hugo Broos and his boys on Wednesday evening will be discipline. Stick to the game plan, maintain composure and nullify the attacking threat Nigeria brings. If Bafana can do this, they may just find themselves in Sunday’s final in Abidjan.