It won’t be the winners’ gold medals dangling from their necks when Bafana Bafana walk in through the arrivals hall at the OR Tambo International Airport early on Wednesday morning.
But the country’s senior national football squad are surely still due a heroes’ welcome following their impressive showing at the Africa Cup of Nations at which they finished in a credible third place.
When they left for the Ivory Coast early in January, not much was expected of Hugo Broos’s team, with most South Africans believing progression past the group stage would be a big achievement. And with good reason too, for Bafana had failed to qualify for the previous tournament and had done very little to inspire confidence.
But the silver-haired Belgian had faith in his players, who in turn bet on themselves to defy the odds, and they duly did as they overcame a poor start which saw them losing 2-0 to Mali to then go “unbeaten” throughout the tournament – their failure to play in Sunday’s final coming courtesy of defeat to Nigeria via the shoot-out from the penalty spot in the semifinal.
En route to winning the country’s second bronze at the biennial, continental showpiece after Trott Moloto’s class of 2000, Bafana were hugely impressive as they knocked out tournament favourites and the continent’s No 1-ranked nation Morocco in the Round of 16.
It was a massive victory that got a hitherto skeptical nation suddenly backing the boys to go all the way.
A shoot-out victory over Cape Verde saw Ronwen Williams stake his claim as one of the continent’s best goalkeepers to join Teboho Mokoena and Khuliso Mudau as Bafana’s top performers at the tournament.
Perhaps most impressive about Bafana bringing home a medal from the tournament is the fact that the squad was made up almost entirely out of players plying their trade in the domestic DStv Premiership. With the majority of their opposition boasting Europe-based players, the initial thought was that Bafana were on to a beating second to none.
But they held their own against the so-called big name players, especially of a Nigeria side that came into the tournament highly-rated.
As it was, Bafana should actually have registered their maiden Afcon finals victory over the Super Eagles had they made use of the scoring chances they created.
That they did not beat Nigeria should not, however, be allowed to take away from the fact that Bafana reignited a nation’s belief in them and have raised our hopes that they can once again qualify for the Fifa World Cup for the first time in four tournaments.
Bafana are in the same group – of six nations – as Nigeria for the World Cup qualifiers and that 1-1 result is sure to have them believing they can get the better of the Super Eagles.
The team that tops the group is guaranteed qualification for the tournament, to be hosted by Canada, Mexico and the US, and on the strength of their Afcon showing there’s every reason to expect Bafana Bafana to be that side.