Mbulelo Mabizela, the youngest man to have captained Bafana Bafana, is back where he belongs: at the heart of the defence.

Now the 22-year-old Orlando Pirates captain, who led South Africa in the recent international friendly against Trinidad and Tobago, is the key to Bafana's qualification for the African Nations Cup in Tunisia next year.

Bafana face Ivory Coast here on Sunday in a must-win encounter. If Mabizela and his teammates cannot pull off a win, Bafana will need a miracle to qualify for the continental tournament.

Originally selected by Carlos Queiroz in 2001 as a right-back, Mabizela had a dreadful time at the African Nations Cup in Mali in January 2002

He did not make an appearance for Jomo Sono's Bafana at the World Cup, and his international career appeared to be drifting into early obscurity. Then, last September, came Bafana's African Nations Cup qualifier in Abidjan against the Ivory Coast.

Coach Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba had the ingenious idea of playing Mabizela at centre-back against the Elephants, alongside Aaron Mokoena.

Eyebrows were raised when Mabizela's name appeared on the team sheet, especially in that position. But the youngster from Maritzburg turned in a stunning performance, hardly giving the Ivorians a sniff in a 0-0 draw.

"I had a really bad time in Mali," admitted Mabizela. "Now I've moved back to my own position."

Indeed Mabizela has excelled as a centre-back this season, both at Pirates, where he led the side to the league title, and for Bafana, where he has stood out as a class above some abject team performances.

Now, of course, the wheel has turned full circle for Mabizela, as he will be one of the first names on the team sheet when Bafana run out to face the Ivory Coast on Sunday.

And he would love to captain the side again, "if it is possible", he said. The defender, though, as with the rest of the squad, will probably only discover hours before Sunday's tie who is to wear the captain's armband and who will play.

Meanwhile some of Bafana's overseas-based players had not arrived by early today.

Siyabonga Nomvete and Aaron Mokoena trained with the side in the morning, while Benni McCarthy, Steven Pienaar and Delron Buckley arrived in the afternoon.

But Shaun Bartlett, Bradley Carnell, Jacob Lekgetho and Sibusiso Zuma are still not here.

The earliest Zuma will join his countrymen is Friday as the Denmark-based striker plays in an important match for his club FC Copenhagen against Brondby tonight. Copenhagen are a point behind league leaders Brondby with tonight's clash the penultimate game of the season.

The news from Denmark on Tuesday was that Zuma's club would have second thoughts about releasing their South African striker if Copenhagen win tonight and the championship goes to the wire with the season's final game on Sunday.

  • Kick-off: 3pm, SundayTV: SABC 1