“I really loved the welcome we got after we qualified, and we would like more of that – but we know the only way is if we do well in the tournament,” says Bafana captain Thulani Hlatshwayo. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

Thulani Hlatshwayo has earned 40 international caps, but has yet to face Ivory Coast or Morocco.

So, in contrast to many local football fans, the Bafana Bafana captain was one of the more excited South Africans to see the Ivorians and Moroccans in Group D for the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, starting in June.

Neighbours Namibia complete the group, but it is the tough tackling west and north African outfits that Hlatshwayo is looking forward to measuring his ability against.

The Wits defender believes the fact that Bafana will be tested from the start, when they take on Ivory Coast on June 24 in Cairo, will actually help them get going.

“I am glad we did not get so-called small nations, because we seem to be at our best when we face big-name countries, so I am confident we will do well,” Hlatshwayo told the Safa website.

“Mind you, we started the qualifications with a win (against Nigeria) and ended with another fine win (against Libya) and both matches were away – not only that, we also qualified without losing a game, and that means we are doing something right.

“So, we have to continue where we left off ,and I believe with the nation behind us, we will get it right.

“What makes this more exciting personally is that I have never played against Ivory Coast and Morocco at senior level, but I am very aware of what they are all about.

“They are physical, but that is not an issue for us, as we have faced similar opposition before.

“So I am really looking forward to these matches. I believe we are more experienced now, and we are not intimated by anybody anymore – but we worked hard to get here, and that’s what gives me confidence ahead of the tournament.”

After the Ivory Coast clash, Bafana will go up against Namibia on 28 June and Morocco on 1 July, all at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo.

Bafana were unbeaten in their qualifiers, including a win and a draw against Nigeria, and Hlatshwayo – nicknamed ‘Tyson’ – is confident that Stuart Baxter’s team will pack a punch in Egypt.

“I believe that is a good way to start the tournament, with such strong opposition, and we all know a positive start sets the tone for the competition,” the 29-year-old said.

“For long we have been looking for our identity, and I believe with recent performances, we have found that – but we cannot afford to relax, because the intention is not just getting out of the group, but doing well in the entire tournament.

“To our advantage, we have some youngsters, but they have wealth of experience. Also, I really loved the welcome we got after we qualified, and we would like more of that – but we know the only way is if we do well in the tournament.”

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