/ 8 February 2024

Bafana Bafana are back

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Evidence Makgopa heads the ball next to Mothobi Mvala during the Africa Cup of Nations 2024 semi-final football match between Nigeria and South Africa at the Stade de la Paix in Bouake on February 7, 2024. (Photo by Issouf SANOGO / AFP)

When football matches cross midnight (local time), weird things happen. Goal-keepers turn into princes, penalty-takers turn into pumpkins, and the world takes a turn for the fabulous. 

Bafana Bafana’s Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) quarter-final against Cape Verde in the Ivorian capital of Yamoussoukro on Saturday was surely a case in point.

With the score deadlocked at nil-all, and the witching hour approaching, Ronwen Williams, the Bafana Bafana goal-keeper, contrived to jolt us sleepyheads back home wide awake.

Darting off his line to narrow the angle with the Cape Verde’s Gilson Tavares bearing down on him for a certain goal, Williams pulled off a miraculous reflex save. Put through by a cheeky diagonal pass that caught Bafana’s central defenders napping, Gilson and his heavily-strapped right knee, fired off a snapshot with the Bafana goal yawning.

Had Gilson’s shot headed in, Bafana would have been heading home, but Williams stuck out a gloved paw that deflected the shot just enough for the ball to glance onto the crossbar.

Those who weren’t asleep were now wide awake, and those who were asleep had woken.

There followed the remains of the second-half, and an agonising two halves of extra-time. With the scores still stuck fast, the dreaded penalty shoot-out hove into view.

Bafana’s Mihlali Mayambela came close to scoring in extra-time, as did Evidence Makgopa the Orlando Pirates striker in the same passage of play, but neither could cast a successful spell on the Cape Verde goal. The Cape Verde goal-keeper, Vozinha, fetching in all pink, remained unimpressed with Bafana’s crisp interplay, as did his hard-working defenders and central midfielders. The men in blue shirts stood as firm as the archipelago of small islands in the Atlantic.

Full of players who sound Brazilian – João Paulo, Jamiro Monteiro, Jovan Cabral – but who often play professionally in Portugal, Cape Verde were probably the better side.

They created more half and quarter chances and generally looked more industrious. Getting beyond Bafana’s wide defenders on several occasions was one thing, however, getting past Williams in goal was quite another.

Of the two teams, they were also the more petulant, and the more poorly-behaved. As penalties looked like an inevitability, they simulated; they threw temper tantrums on the side-lines and they bickered amongst themselves. By the time penalties arrived, their happy place was receding like a ship over the horizon.

By contrast, Bafana were uncomplaining. They’re a stoic side, calmly and deliberately coached by Hugo Broos, a Belgian who worked wonders with Cameroon in helping them to win the 2017 Afcon. Such resilience served Bafana well in the penalty shoot-out, but Williams served them better.

Guessing correctly three times in a row, the midnight mind-reader dived and saved three times to his right. Later he dived to his left and saved again. It was so brilliant it was almost diabolical but no-one in the (by now) wide-awake nation was complaining.

As the white-haired Broos, a fellow who is figuratively nearing midnight himself at 71, said after the shootout: “Six hours ago I was 71 – now I am 75. It was a very stressful game.”

It’s been a giddy Afcon because, after years of being coy about being Bafana fans, we are stuck in the closet no longer. It’s good to be back. You remember the good and the bad but there’s only memory muddle in the middle. In the fallow years, for example, we’ve forgotten all those little tics and idiosyncrasies.

Think of Percy Tau’s penalty miss in the opening half of their first group match against Mali. And think of their little flurries of piano and shoeshine, and their “no-please-after-you” mildness in front of goal.

We’ve forgotten, too, their heart and their indefatigability. They never moan. And they always keep coming. Their quietly-worn self-belief can wear you down.

In a sense it didn’t matter that they lost on penalties 4-2 to Nigeria on Wednesday night, because Bafana and Broos’ midnight hour came in their 2-0 quarter-final victory over Morocco. Ranked 13th in the world, one of only two African teams in the Federation of International Football Associations (Fifa) top twenty (the other are Senegal), Morocco are the right stuff, borne out by their run to the semi-finals at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.        

Drawn in Group F with Belgium, Croatia and Canada, they topped the group to fire themselves into their second round. After a nil-all draw with Croatia, they beat highly-regarded Belgium 2-0 thanks to goals by defender Roman Saïss and Toulouse winger Zakaria Aboukhlal. In the round of 16 Morocco beat Spain on penalties before accounting for Portugal 1-0 in the quarter-final.

The win over Portugal brought them face-to-face to France, a tie full of history, culture and, even, enmity. Morocco were not disgraced to lose 2-0 before losing by the odd goal to Croatia in the third-placed place-off.

For Bafana to beat a side of such quickness and pedigree is a singular achievement. As Broos has said, he hopes it means that talent scouts from around the world start to take South African domestic football just a little bit more seriously.

If you’re a scout and happen to be reading this, you could do worse than enquire about Tebogo Mokoena, who can bend it like David Beckham, or Khuliso Mudau, his Mamelodi Sundowns team-mate.  

Mudau is a livewire right-back, hardly the sexiest position on a football field, and one to attract neither plaudits nor headlines. His gifts, however, are considerable. Simply no-one goes round him and to watch him carefully shows just how difficult it is to be an artful defender whose main aim in life is to pick the pocket of the man running at you.

He could have catapulted Bafana into the final late in the game against Nigeria, jumping into the box like a crazy frog. Finally the shock of being so far up-field became too much for him, and he sort-of fell over, unable to fire off a shot that might have propelled Bafana into their first final since the glory years of 1996.

Alas, it wasn’t to be, as Williams wasn’t able to repeat his Cape Verde heroics against Nigeria in the penalty shoot-out on Wednesday night. Despite the disappointment of losing the semi-final, get this: When the knock-out tie against Morocco at Afcon happened, Bafana were ranked 66th in the world, between North Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They won’t be ranked 66th after this storming performance in the competition, of that we can be sure.

The semi-final against Nigeria was really just a little appetiser, because the two teams have been drawn in the same qualifying group for the 2026 World Cup. It’s an expanded tournament, with 48 teams, and although Benin and Rwanda also look tricky in Bafana’s group, the Super Eagles are the real threat.

Given Wednesday night’s agonising draw, two penalties, extra-time and then penalties again, don’t bet on an easy ride in either home or away match against Nigeria in the World Cup qualifiers. Take your blood pressure medication. Plonk yourself down in your favourite chair and bring on the popcorn. You’re going to be in for a dizzy ride because Bafana are back.