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The story of South Africa’s topsy-turvy footballing journey


Oliver McManus chronicles the footballing journey of South Africa.


Bafana Bafana, the boys of South Africa, have had a constantly chaotic history ever since the 1990s with the struggles of apartheid, coaching instability and rocky form all balanced out with rejuvenated fans, top-class performances and hosting the World Cup in 2010. It really is an eclectic tapestry that they weave so let’s dig a little deeper, take a look at their history, their current crop of players and what the future holds for the South Africa national football team.

It’s hard to talk about the history of South Africa in any context without facing up to the cold hard reality of its past racial tensions and, indeed, that seeps into the football sphere as well. Despite domestic leagues still being in existence, the national football team was banned from the international scene from 1957 after determining that they could only send an all-black or an all-white team to that year’s African Cup of Nations until 1992, essentially starving the nation of any real development.

Despite all of that disarray, when they did come back to competitions they returned with an immediate impact- the 1996 African Cup of Nations was their first real opportunity to let football, as opposed to politics, do the talking. Having replaced Kenya in hosting the tournament, 15 teams would embark on the cities of Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Durban and Port Elizabeth to determine who were the greatest team in African football.

Coached by Clive Barker, the country were in a group featuring AFCON debutants Angola, Egypt who reached the quarter-finals in the previous edition and Cameroon who failed to qualify for that last tournament in Tunisia. Nonetheless, they wanted to put on a show and that they did; in front of a packed 75,000 at FNB Stadium they kicked off the tournament against Cameroon with a thumping 3-0 win. Phil Masinga went down in history as the first goalscorer for South Africa in international tournaments and he was joined on the scoresheet by Mark Williams and John Moshoeu.

A week later, Williams would get another goal, the only one of the game, as they ran out 1-0 winners against Angola before a classy Egypt team would keep the hosts level-headed when they defeated South Africa by a goal to nil. As group winners, they progressed to the quarter-finals where they were pitted against Algeria in what was a war of attrition with neither team really wanting to go for the kill; Mark Fish struck first in the 72nd minute in what was his debut international goal before Tarek Lazizi pegged them back just 12 minutes later. Thankfully, for the Bafana Bafana, Moshoeu showed his creative spark that saw him spend ten years in the Turkish league, with a delightful goal to send South Africa into the semi-finals.

Without going into too much detail, Mosheou would score twice more in that semi-final, against Ghana, with Shaun Bartlett being the other name on the scoresheet as South Africa ran out 3-0 winner. An encounter with Tunisia was set up for the final to take place at that fabled FNB Stadium where, would you believe it, South Africa kept up that plucky form of theirs with two Mark Williams goals in two minutes, securing the country’s first ever major trophy and putting them back on the map for good reasons.

From those early signs you could be forgiven for thinking they’d be a powerhouse for years to come and whilst the sacking of Clive Barker did seemingly little to dent their form- a second place at the 1998 AFCON and qualification for France ’98 cannot be seen as anything but success- they almost immediately seemed to spiral into a relative depression.

An unwelcome trend seemed to be emerging of shock firings, firstly with Clive Barker, then Philippe Troussier before Trott Moloto was given the boot despite finishing third in the 2000 edition of the Africa Cup of Naitons. Carlos Quieroz came in to take charge of the team and it was around this time that political instability started to rear its ugly head again.

Infighting both within the actual government and the FA itself distracted from the efforts on the pitch which were actually impressive thanks to easy qualification to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Chaos was to encompass the squad as Queiroz left in the run-up to the tournament as a result of the turmoil.

Jomo Sono was an emergency replacement and in a group with Spain, Paraguay and, then debutants (now almost regulars), Slovenia, it was plausible for the nation to expect a place in the knockout stages. Hearts were only to be broken as they finished a meagre third place in the group despite battling performances, the whole of which was unfortunately overshadowed by such events away from the action.

Even that instability was a comfortable plateau as to what would unfold over the following five years- Ephraim Mashaba, April Phumo, Stuart Baxter, Ted Dumitru and Pitso Mosimane would all come and go in an effort to revive the fortunes of the Bafana Bafana, with no one having success of any kind.

AFCON 2004 was a disaster when, in a group with Morocco, Nigeria and Benin, they should have progressed but only managed to muster a 2-0 win against Benin whilst succumbing 4-0 to Nigeria and holding on for a 1-1 draw against a rampaging Morocco, the eventual runners-up.

You’d assume things could only get better but if 2004 was a disaster then 2006 was an absolute shambolic disgrace. To emphasise that final word, just one more time, DISGRACE.

With Ted Dumitru in charge, the squad contained the likes of Mbulelo Mabizela, Elrio van Heerden and Benni McCarthy as well as a group stuffed full of beatable teams- Guinea, Tunisia and Zambia- and so to register no points, no goals with no effort put in was just diabolical. The outfall was bitter, public and volatile with fans deserting stadiums in their droves and those that stuck around were booing to their hearts content.

How are they meant to react when ten years ago they were lifting their first trophy in their return to international competition and now they are embarrassing themselves in the highest degree possible? The only thing one can compare it to is when England lost to Iceland at Euro 2016- I’m used to England making me suffer but honestly after that game I just gave up with the team. And South Africa came close to, essentially, giving up on football.
The only option was to go for experience. Experience always wins. In came Carlos Alberto Parreira, a former World Cup winner and coach of the Brazilian national team, which was quite a coup for the nation. He made sure he played older players with more domestic experience who, it was believed, would gel quicker. The only way is up, right?

Wrong. He failed as well and oversaw a third successive first round failure at the African Cup of Nations with the squad falling short in, yet again, an easily progressible group containing Angola, Senegal and Tunisia. Two points from the three games showed a lack of finishing prowess but was definitely an early sign of mild improvement under Parreira.

Just as things were starting to avert from their downwards trajectory, Parreira was forced to step down after family issues but he did hand select Joel Santana to replace him- Santana signed a contract running two years to 2010.

What followed was to be their darkest period in football, ever. Santana had never held a position at such a high level as this- previously managing just about every team in Brazil, though- and the pressure told. Epitomised by a lack of creativity, no threat upfront and a leaky defence, the South African team failed to qualify for the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and mustered crowds of barely even 30% capacity during the campaign.

Let’s not forget that as hosts of the 2010 World Cup, they automatically qualified and, therefore, this was essentially their preparation for the tournament. Predictably Santana was sacked and, unpredictably, Parreira came back.

Having dropped out of the top ten teams in Africa and to a post-Apartheid low ranking, there was a lot of rebuilding to be done but Parreira sort of carried on as though he never left- as though Santana was just a blip- and instantly made strides to improve the performances of the nation. For him it was about performances that instilled confidence in the run up to the World Cup as opposed to actual results, although results would still be welcome.

The 2009 Confederations Cup was the first platform to showcase this new team spirit and it went very, very well. Although they lost 2-0 to Spain, the performance was strong and, indeed, for the most part they ran level with the eventual World Cup winners. Heck, they almost went one better in the 3rd/4th place play-off with the Spaniards, going 1-0 up then nabbing a 93rd minute goal to level the tie at 2-2; they showed guts, guile and genius to push the 2008 European Champions into extra time.

Confidence was flowing going into the Group Stages of the 2010 World Cup and I don’t think I need to say any more about that first game other than Siphiwe Tshabalala: have you seen a purer strike than that in all of World Cup history? Goals from Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela would help secure them a 2-1 win against France, deshelled under Deschamps, in their final game to finish level on points with second place but still eliminated. Does that count as success? 100%. Especially given where they were 12 months previously.

Fast forwarding to 2017, the team are currently under the guidance of Stuart Baxter, who joined in May. The team appear to be going from strength to strength and although qualification to Russia 2018 is a bit of a stretch (in thanks to their slow start), their prospects going forward are certainly on the up.

A player we’ve raved about here on Outside of the Boot for literally years- he’s featured in two of our 100 to Watch lists- and indeed I think we can officially call him a “friend of OOTB” is Rivaldo Coetzee.

Coetzee is the youngest player ever to represent South Africa and has appeared 23 times for them since making his debut in 2014- having spent that same period with Ajax Cape Town, he has recently transferred to Mamelodi Sundowns (also in South Africa) despite rumoured interest from European clubs, including a collapsed move to Celtic. He is a symbol of the future for the Bafana Bafana: young, athletic, skilful, technical players that produce attractive, easy-on-the-eye football.

The future is never certain as we’ve seen on this topsy-turvy ride that South Africa have taken on but the future definitely looks so much brighter than in previous years – let’s just wait and see how this all unfolds!

Oliver McManus

Oliver McManus

Oliver is a Tottenham fan, a former player for Herne Bay and currently studying for his Level 3 Diploma. His proudest footballing moment is when Brad Fridel touched his shoulder.
Oliver McManus

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