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Johannesburg – As in 2009 and 2010, the traffic queues will again be long as Bafana Bafana open yet another tournament this evening.
While initially there were fears that tonight’s Africa Cup of Nations Group A double header featuring Bafana against Cape Verde and Angola against Morocco might not sell out, South Africans have proven once again that, in spite of all, they are willing to give their underachieving team another chance.
In the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup, we similarly packed Ellis Park for the opening game against Iraq, confident that our stuttering team, then led by an equally woeful Joel Santana, would put us in high spirits by starting off with a win. It was not to be, as a dour 0-0 draw against a country infamous for internal strife rather than competence on any sporting field made a mockery of our optimism. The following year, we descended on Soccer City in our tens of thousands to watch the opening World Cup match against Mexico, again expectant of a positive result.
We tragically fell short, a 1-1 draw meaning we would have to do better in the remaining group matches to avoid the ignominy of being the first World Cup hosts to exit at the first hurdle. Alas, it was not to be, and we duly made an early exit from the tournament.
Tonight, we are again headed to the National Stadium in numbers, hopeful that Bafana can, for a change, set the tone for a great next three weeks.
A win against Cape Verde is critical if heads which have been down for a while are to rise again; if the criticism which has been directed towards the team is to stop.
Crucially, even those fans who had abandoned the team on the basis of recent poor performances against Algeria and Norway would be wooed back by a positive result.
To some among us, it is impossible to desert Bafana, for they have remained the only truly inclusive national side with which we can identify. Hence even when we head into the tournament amid despondency and little expectation, the stadium – like in 2009 and 2010 – has been sold out days before the game.
For many in the current squad, those tournaments a few years ago provided a platform to amass previously unimaginable wealth in terms of endorsements and improved contracts. Siphiwe Tshabalala, for instance, may not have enjoyed the popularity he gets today were it not for that World Cup opener against Mexico in June 2010.
Most of the squad from that team were reported to have pocketed up to R500 000 in bonuses, in spite of a disgraceful failure to qualify for the knockout phase.
But now with time running against some in Gordon Igesund’s squad, they have little choice but to write their own history, to be acclaimed as true heroes, and not merely as one-goal wonders.
They fluffed the first two opportunities – in 2009 and 2010 – and after this Afcon, there surely won’t be a fourth chance!
A look into Bafana’s Nations Cup history shows they’ve only ever twice won the opening match at the finals – in 1996 and 2004. In ’98 and 2002, we required wins in our final group match to secure a path into the knockout stage.
So if this Bafana bunch win tonight, they would be etched into the history books as only our third side to win a Nations Cup opener.
But there’s even bigger memories to be made: a win tonight would be our first in the tournament since 2004. Should we qualify for the second round, it would be a first since 2002. Should we make it into the semis, it would be a first since 2000. Should we make the final, it would be first since 1998.
The biggest prize of all, should we win the final, would surpass the 1996 success as our footballing zenith. While this column maintains victory, or even getting to the February 10 final is an improbability, we should have cause to believe our players realise they are on the threshold of greatness. That, however, should start with a win tonight.
*Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng