Most would agree that there are two momentous dates in South African history. One is the day that Apartheid was officially abolished. The other is July 7th, 1992; the day South African football was reborn. After twenty years without fulfilling an international fixture a new multi-racial South African Football Association was admitted to FIFA, yet no-one quite imagined that the Bafana Bafana would end up hosting the 2010 World Cup.
Despite failing to qualify for USA ’94, South African football was on a seemingly upward curve. Morale-boosting victories over Cameroon and Congo, coupled with the tear-jerking 1996 African Cup of Nations success, caused South African to leap to number sixteen in the world. Many compared their rise in fortunes to that of their cricket counterparts, but football is part of life in South Africa. Within five years, South Africa had risen from having no national side to having arguably the best in Africa.
This reputation was given the chance to be tested when South Africa qualified for France ’98, after simple victories over Malawi, Congo, Zambia, and Congo DR. Placed with hosts France, Denmark and Saudi Arabia in the group stage, it appeared to be a tough feat to achieve. France were the first team to face the relatively unknown South Africans, cruising through 3-0, before Benni McCarthy scored the Bafana Bafana’s first ever World Cup Finals’ goal in a 1-1 draw with Denmark. This set up a crunch meeting with Saudia Arabia, with the winner likely to proceed to the last sixteen. Shaun Bartlett sent almost the whole country berserk when he rifled home the opener, and with Denmark losing to France, the unthinkable was on the horizon. However, two quick-fire disputable penalties from Al-Jaber and Al-Thunayan put the victory out of South Africa’s reach, despite Bartlett’s’ last minute strike. South Africa had arrived on the world scene as a force to be reckoned with.
The Bafana Bafana then qualified for Korea/Japan ’02 as now expected. With an array of attacking talent, they appeared as second favourites to qualify from Group B alongside Spain, edging out Paraguay and Slovenia. This sense of belief was unheard of before in an African side, replicated in their stunning fightback in the opening game. Trailing 2-0 to Paraguay, goals from Teboho Mokoena and Quinton Fortune rescued a point, thus maintaining South Africa’s increasingly realistic ambitions. Then, on June 8th 2002, something every South African had wished to see happened; a World Cup victory. Siyabonga Nomvethe’s early strike saw off Slovenia, a goal that even brought a tear to the eye of Nelson Mandela. Even so, they were unable to withhold a flamboyant Spanish side, with Raul’s late strike breaking South Africa’s hearts.
Since this era of moderate success, South Africa have been branded a failure. Failure to qualify for Germany ’06 was unexpected, but the inability to score a single goal in the 2006 African Cup of Nations brought anger to the Bafana Bafana fans. Perhaps they were too over-expectant? Varying managers didn’t bring an end to this sad period of time either, following spells from Parreira and Santana in charge. Obviously as hosts South Africa did not have to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, although their flashes of brilliance were highlighted in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Now with household names such as Steven Pienaar and Aaron Mokoena amongst their ranks, South Africa’s squad was competitive. Despite a loss to Spain, four points from matches against New Zealand and Iran was enough to seal a semi-final place, where they kept Brazil at bay for the majority of the match but couldn’t quite hold on. An epic 3rd Place play-off with Spain followed, with South Africa’s fighting spirit shining through in their narrow extra-time defeat.
Many commentators believed that their displays against Brazil and Spain portrayed just how far South Africa had come since their resurrection in 1992. They have the ability to score for fun and pull off shock victories, something which their lowly world ranking does not suggest. Ignore it. Can the Bafana Bafana create even more World Cup history this year? You bet they can.
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