SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 18, Bafana Bafana players and Gordon Igesund during the South African national soccer team training session at Orlando Stadium on January 18, 2013 in Soweto, South Africa Photo by Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images

Johannesburg – Bafana Bafana will begin an unlikely quest for glory at the Africa Cup of Nations this evening, with the responsibility really on their shoulders to get the nation behind them.

President Jacob Zuma joined coach Gordon Igesund this week in hitting out at critics of the side, with Zuma announcing, from his lofty perch, that the nation was behind Bafana.

This is, however, a moot point. Public opinion, in truth, seems decidedly mixed on the national team, with many having lost faith after more than a decade of underachievement. Igesund has been a champion of positive thinking in the lead up to the tournament, insisting his side are capable of taking down the continent’s best, starting this evening with Cape Verde.

A sell-out crowd of over 90 000 can, however, not be blamed if they turn up at the National Stadium more in hope than expectation. The statistics, after all, make horrible reading. South Africa have not qualified for Nations Cup finals since 2008. They have not won a game at finals since 2004.

To see South Africa as in with even the slimmest of chances would seem utterly deluded were they not hosts. And therein lies a kind of rub. Back in 1996, Bafana were by no means favourites, relative newcomers to the international scene, when under Clive Barker they rode the wave of a country joyous in its new-found freedom, culminating in Mark Williams’ double against Tunisia.

Igesund has called on this team to write their own piece of history, to step out of the shadow of the class of ’96, and the first step, one feels, simply has to be victory over Cape Verde.

Bafana will be playing in front of a far more skeptical crowd than in 1996, with players already subjected to booing in the warm-up games against Norway and Algeria. But by taking down Cape Verde, Bafana might just re-ignite the fervour of a success-starved nation. Bafana’s opponents are rising stars off the African continent – it is they who are ranked the highest in Group A on Fifa’s slightly dubious rankings, ahead of Bafana, Angola and Morocco.

Luis Antunes’s side took down Cameroon to get to their first ever Nations Cup finals, and have arrived in South Africa presenting plenty of national pride. Despite their ranking, they come to South Africa with little to lose, able to relish the status of underdogs. Antunes’s side could well be cagey in their opening match, putting the onus on Bafana to break them down, well aware no doubt of the home side’s struggles in front of goal.

Expect them to then use quick counter-attacks to try and catch off-guard a Bafana defence not exactly renowned for pace, with the speedy Lille winger Ryan Mendes perhaps the main threat to South Africa’s goal.

Cape Verde, however, do not travel particularly well, having beaten only Madagascar and Mauritius away from Cape Verde in the past five years.

For Igesund, the task is not just for Bafana to convert their chances, but also to find more creativity from behind lone striker Katlego Mphela, particularly given Steven Pienaar’s untimely retirement.

Dean Furman and Kagiso Dikgacoi have looked a slightly stodgy central midfield pairing in the Igesund era, and much could depend on how much the talent of young Thulani Serero can come to the fore. Thuso Phala’s pace down the right wing has also been a highlight.

Mphela, meanwhile, is the one bright spark in the goalscoring malaise and if he can find his sharpness, or if Bernard Parker, in excellent form for Kaizer Chiefs, can come to life, Bafana might just find a way through Cape Verde and beyond.

Gordon Igesund has talked a good game, but now it is up to Bafana to produce one. – Saturday Star