It is hardly surprising that the Super Eagles of Nigera were bursting with confidence when the draw for the 2015 African Nations Cup qualifiers pitted them against perennial whipping-boys Bafana Bafana.
The twittersphere abounded with cock-sure Nigerians and gloomy South Africans, a rivalry as one-sided as they come to be renewed in a few months time.
“We are in Group A and we will come out with an ‘A’ grade,” Nigerian Football Federation president Alhaji Aminu Maigari told reporters.
And there is every reason for the reigning African champions to believe they will come out as kings of Group A, which also contains Sudan, and one more to come from preliminary play-offs, with some ease.
First, Nigeria are in a strong position right now, having won the Nations Cup last year and on their way to Brazil 2014. Second, Bafana have slipped horribly down the pecking order on the continental stage in recent years, and their record against the Super Eagles is abysmal.
Bafana have lost six of seven competitive meetings with Nigeria since their reintroduction to the international stage in 1992. And even after the one draw, back in January 1993, it was the Super Eagles who progressed to the next phase of qualification for the 1994 Fifa World Cup.
Since the turn of the century, Bafana have lost five out of five against Nigeria, scoring just one goal – Bernard Parker’s consolation penalty, with the side already 3-0 down, during the African Nations Championship debacle earlier this year.
Prior to that, Bafana lost home and away to Nigeria in Joel Santana’s ill-fated qualifying campaign for the 2010 Nations Cup, were beaten 4-0 in the group stages of the 2004 Nations Cup, and lost in the semi-finals of the 2000 Nations Cup.
“It is a fair draw and I think we should be one of the two countries that qualify for the finals in Morocco,” said an optimistic Bafana coach Gordon Igesund following the draw.
“I was not expecting an easy draw because all countries are competitive but I am very hopeful of qualifying for Morocco 2015.
“The past two years of my tenure have been the most difficult … but now I do have a core of around 30 players from which to choose and Bafana Bafana should be one of the countries going to Morocco.”
It is, however, unclear whether the man speaking these words will be in charge when the qualifiers begin in September. Igesund’s contract expires at the end of July, and the South African Football Association have given no indication of whether they will renew.
A new coach would throw up another problem – the need to instil new ideas in a short space of time. For now, if Igesund is in charge, he can have a realistic hope that Bafana can qualify as runners-up in the group, even if taking down Nigeria seems like a very long shot.
Not that any Bafana coach or supporter can indulge in complacency, when the team has not qualified for any competition since they made it to the 2008 Nations Cup in Ghana under Carlos Alberto Parreira. Since then, Bafana have only played in tournament finals when they have hosted.
The lessons of failing to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup, when Bafana missed out to Niger, failing to beat Sierra Leone along the way, and even 2014 World Cup qualification, when Ethiopia beat Igesund’s men to the play-offs, should leave nothing taken for granted.
Bafana’s campaign starts in September, not against Nigeria, but with a tricky looking trip to the east to face Sudan.
The Nile Crocodiles, like Bafana, have one African Nations Cup title to their name, also as hosts, back in 1970. More recently, they reached the quarter-finals of the 2012 Nations Cup in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, losing 3-0 to eventual champions Zambia.
Sudan then failed to qualify for the 2013 African Nations Cup in South Africa, beaten over two legs on away goals by Ethiopia, Bafana’s nemesis in 2014 World Cup qualifying.
Sudan endured a dreadful 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, picking up just two points from games against Ghana, Zambia and Lesotho. Sudan did beat Zambia 2-0 in Omduram on June 2, 2012, but the game was later awarded as a 3-0 win to Zambia, after it was found the East Africans had fielded an ineligible player.
Sudan thus lost all their home games in qualifying, with even little Lesotho going to Omduram in the final qualifier and winning 3-1. Sudan’s most creditable result in the campaign was a 1-1 draw in Ndola against Zambia in June 2013, while they also drew 0-0 in Lesotho.
The Nile Crocodiles are still coached by Mohammed Abdallah, a former player who was in charge when Sudan reached the Nations Cup quarter-finals in 2012. The East Africans did well to finish as runners-up in a group containing the Ivory Coast, Angola and Burkina Faso, beating the Burkinabe 2-1 in their final group match in Bata to progress.
Almost the entire Sudan squad play in the local league, with most coming from the country’s two biggest clubs, Al-Hilal and Al-Merreikh.
Bafana and Sudan have never met, but after their experiences against Ethiopia on the road to Brazil, Igesund’s men should be wary of another East African opponent, however poor Sudan’s record over the past couple of years.
Bafana’s final Group A opponents will come from one of four teams, play-off rounds to decide which of Namibia, Congo Braziaville, Libya or Rwanda advance.
Libya and Congo Brazzaville seem the most likely candidates to progress, with the former having won this year’s African Nations Championship, under the wise tutelage of Spanish coach Javier Clemente.
The Mediterranean Knights will host the 2017 Nations Cup and will be determined to make it to Morocco as a sign of progression towards their own tournament.
Libya also had an impressive qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup, in which they beat Cameroon and Togo at home, though they eventually finished as runners-up in their group to the Indomitable Lions.
Bafana’s Afcon 2015 qualifying fixtures:
Sep 5-6 v Sudan (a)
Sep 10 v Nigeria (h)
Oct 10-11 v Namibia/Congo-Brazzaville/
Oct 15 v Namibia/Congo-Brazzaville/
Nov 14-15 v Sudan (h)
Nov 19 v Nigeria (a) - The Star