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A sigh of collective relief was palpable inside the Chief Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre on Wednesday night, as Bafana Bafana got an Africa Cup of Nations draw that could only be described as ideal.
Gordon Igesund’s men open next year’s continental championships with a tie against Cape Verde at the FNB Stadium on January 19, a perfect fixture for a South African side desperate to make a good start to a tournament they host a second time.
Cape Verde may have caused a shock of seismic proportions by knocking Cameroon out in the qualifying, but there’s little doubt that any of the top seeds would have preferred to face them in an opening game as they are making their first appearance at a Nations Cup finals.
As it was, the luck of the draw was with Bafana, with President Jacob Zuma stepping up to the podium and picking the Islanders from the pot as South Africa’s first opponents, triggering ululations and cheers from relieved locals.
Ranked 10th in Africa, nine places above Bafana, Cape Verde have improved markedly in recent months, but Igesund will be confident of securing that much-needed first win which would set the tone for a successful attempt at winning the Nations Cup again.
Bafana have played Cape Verde twice before, and it should help to know that the South Africans emerged victorious on both occasions, winning 2-0 in Bloemfontein and 2-1 in Praia in 2006 World Cup qualifiers.
Following their match with the islanders, Bafana trek to Durban – which will serve as a base for Group A teams – for two fixtures, first against neighbours Angola (January 23) and then Morocco four days later, which should be assumed to be their toughest match.
Angola, who made heavy weather of making the finals by beating Zimbabwe only on the away goals rule, have never beaten Bafana.
In six clashes between the countries, SA won three times, while the others were drawn. Their last meeting was actually at a Nations Cup finals in Ghana 2008, which ended 1-1, but some South Africans will remember that in winning the tournament in 1996, Bafana had similarly been pooled together with the Angolans in Group A. Having already beaten Cameroon 3-0 in the opening game, Clive Barker’s team beat their neighbours 1-0 to top the group.
Angola have also improved in recent years but, again, Igesund would not want to be the first SA coach to lose to them in such a crucial event.
In reality, it could have been worse for Bafana had they drawn Nigeria – who were in the same pool as Angola. But the South Africans were still handed a stiff challenge for their final match – against Morocco on January 27.
Bafana have beaten Morocco twice, scoring an heroic 2-1 win in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, en route to reaching their second Nations Cup final under Sono.
The next finals, in Mali in 2002, SA ran out impressive 3-1 winners. The Moroccans’ best result against Bafana was a 1-1 draw at the 2004 finals at Sousse, Tunisia, a result which saw SA tumble out at the first hurdle.
Having seen their side sorely decline, it should be a welcome relief for South Africans that all three of their opponents in next year’s tournament have never tasted victory against them.