Can Bafana Bafana turn Nigeria travel nightmare into glory?

Star Bafana midfielder Teboho Mokoena (centre) will hope to celebrate another goal tonight against Nigeria, as he did in the Afcon semi-final. Photo: BackpagePix

Star Bafana midfielder Teboho Mokoena (centre) will hope to celebrate another goal tonight against Nigeria, as he did in the Afcon semi-final. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Jun 7, 2024


Good old-fashioned gamesmanship came into play as South Africa’s best-laid plans went awry ahead of tonight’s 2026 Fifa World Cup Group C qualifier in Nigeria (9pm SA kick-off).

For once it seemed as if the South African Football Association had done their duty to ease Bafana’s travel arrangements by securing a chartered flight to Nigeria.

In the past, long flights to African destinations have often been the downfall of the national team, who were exhausted and hardly fit to play matches after spending 24 hours or more travelling unnecessarily.

Bafana flew out of Johannesburg on Wednesday, with super fan “Mama Joy” Chauke in tow. They were meant to touch down in Uyo, Nigeria, later in the evening.

However, after a delayed departure from SA, the squad arrived at the Port Harcourt International Airport late on Wednesday.

This Port Harcourt stop was necessary to complete immigration formalities ahead of the final flight to Uyo, where the match would be played.

Once the red tape was sorted out, their chartered jet was prevented from continuing because the airport in Uyo was closed for the night. Consequently, the team booked into a hotel for the evening.

Instead of flying out at the crack of dawn, there were further glitches, and eventually, after a flight and a bus trip, the team arrived at their Uyo hotel at midday yesterday.

It was not what Bafana coach Hugo Broos had expected, having praised Safa’s efforts to secure the chartered flight at a presser earlier this week.

“I have to say that we are travelling by charter to Nigeria,” said Broos.

“Thanks to a big financial effort by Safa, it will ensure that we are fit and rested to take on Nigeria on their home turf. This is always in our best interests, and I want to thank them immensely.”

The Nigerian tacticians may have been alarmed by Broos’ remarks before flying out: “We were the best team in the (Afcon) semi-finals (against Nigeria). We could have won that match, so we don’t have to be afraid (of Nigeria).”

The Super Eagles are in a spot of bother after they drew their first two games of the qualifiers, against lowly Lesotho and Zimbabwe. They are third in the Group C standings with two points.

South Africa have fared slightly better, with a win and defeat in their opening two clashes. With three points, Bafana are in second place.

Broos’ remarks before departure have been widely reported in Nigeria’s media, and this may have been what’s behind the spate of travel delays since arriving in Nigeria.

“We want to have a good result against Nigeria, because this is a qualifier for the World Cup, and we don’t think about revenge,” said Broos.

“Losing the game should not be a disaster because after that we still have six games to play. But I would rather not have a defeat to Nigeria.”

The Super Eagles and Bafana Bafana have a storied rivalry, with Nigeria historically holding the upper hand. In their past 14 meetings, the west African nation have won seven and drawn five, while South Africa have only managed two victories.

In their last meeting earlier this year, Nigeria defeated Bafana 4-2 in a penalty shoot-out during the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations, following a 1-1 draw after extra time, where Teboho Mokoena had slotted home a penalty.

Whoever wins tonight will shoot to the top of the six-team group before the next matches on Tuesday.

Each team will play 10 matches, and the group winners will automatically qualify for the World Cup to be hosted by the US, Mexico, and Canada in 2026.

For the first time in history, the World Cup will feature 48 teams, including nine from Africa, with the possibility for a 10th African team to qualify through an intercontinental play-off.