Thulani Hlatshwayo will man the Bafana defence against Nigeria on Saturday. Photo: BackpagePix

Matshelane Mamabolo

JOHANNESBURG – Like most South African football fans, I am anticipating Bafana Bafana’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier with some degree of trepidation.

After all, standing between our country’s senior national team and three points is a country we just don’t know how to beat – Nigeria.

Don’t worry, I am not about to go all gloom on you and feed you the statistics.

Such is the nature of the game, though, that this should be a match that has all of us enthusiastically anticipating. New beginnings always do that, don’t they?

Here we are, starting a qualification phase for a continental tournament we missed out on the last time around.

As if that was not reason enough for us (and the team) to be charged up; there’s also the fact that we are doing so under the guidance of a new coach. Surely excitement should abound.

There was a sense of that coming from the Bafana camp prior to their departure for Nigeria, and colleague Mazola Molefe’s reports from Uwo have suggested Bafana are abuzz.

We, the fans, however, are not similarly enthused. And with good reason too.

You see, for too long have Bafana Bafana contrived to raise our hopes unduly, only to leave us heartbroken via their failures.

A few years ago under the guidance of Shakes Mashaba, they made us believe we could finally register a win over the Super Eagles, only for them to throw away a lead and end up drawing an Afcon qualifier they should have walked.

Having qualified for the 2015 tournament in impressive unbeaten fashion, they had us believing they could actually compete for honours.

And then they bombed out in the first round.

Excuse me for not being excited, but do you see why I am not champing at the bit for today’s match (6pm SA time kickoff)?

In Stuart Baxter, the South African Football Association (Safa) would like us to believe that they have hired the best man for the job after they fired the petulant Mashaba.

And the Scotsman, back in the post after a pretty disappointing first spell back in the 2004/2005 season, has made all the right noises, the former Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United coach promising to help take Bafana to the top of continental football.

All good. And he can rest assured he has my backing, and no doubt that of all South African football fans.

Stuart Baxter has made all the right noises in his second stint as Bafana coach. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu, BackpagePix

First, though, he has to get us off to a good start in the qualifiers for Cameroon 2019. And he must do so on the back of very limited preparation against a strong foe that has had proper build-up (two good friendlies) for the match. Oh, and they know how to beat us.

The outlook is pretty bleak. Yet, having ran my first Comrades Marathon at the weekend and finished in a pretty good time, I believe that with the right attitude, Bafana Bafana can spring a surprise and shock Nigeria in their own backyard.

The squad Baxter has picked has the talent, albeit nothing like that of the opposition. But in sport, success is often achieved not through talent alone, but a willingness to go the extra mile and pushing yourself beyond your limit.

Going into this match on the back of a gruelling season, it is debatable as to whether the players will have it in them to dig deep and push for that glorious victory.

In Thulani Hlatshwayo, though, they have a captain who has continuously displayed a steely character, and if he carries that into the national set-up, it could rub off on his teammates and see them give us something to cheer about.

Nigeria may be favourites, but surely Bafana can turn on the heat and pleasantly surprise those of us who are not holding much hope of celebrating a maiden competitive win over the Super Eagles? Come on boys! Surprise us!

Saturday Star

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