DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 31, during the South African National soccer team training and player interviews at Peoples Park on January 31, 2013 in Durban, South Africa Photo by Anesh Debiky / Gallo Images

Johannesburg – Three years ago Siphiwe Tshabalala was a big Bafana Bafana star, largely thanks to that opening goal at the 2010 World Cup that would probably still make its way into a television advert and make South Africans smile.

A lot can change in three years. Fast forward to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and Tshabalala is no longer as key to the national team as he was before, having to deal with coming off the bench in Gordon Igesund’s Bafana squad that seems hell-bent on being crowned African champions.

A regular starter under former coaches Pitso Mosimane, Joel Santana and Carlos Alberto Parreira, the Kaizer Chiefs midfielder and the likes of Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Kagisho Dikgacoi could struggle to win back their places in the starting line-up, considering the young players in the team have hit top form and seem determined to hold on to their spots in the line-up.

Against Morocco in Bafana’s last group game last weekend, May Mahlangu (23) and Tokelo Rantie (22) were in fine form as they combined for the equaliser after SA had gone a goal down, Dean Furman (24) was superb in the holding role and Thulani Serero (22) sparked some life into the team when he came on as a substitute. Why wouldn’t the more experienced guys fear for their places in the team when the youngsters are making their mark?

Retired footballer Shaun Bartlett, who was just 23 when Bafana won the Cup of Nations on home soil in 1996, believes the quartet – the next generation of Bafana players – are proving their worth in the team and slowly taking over from the more experienced guys.

“They certainly have the potential (to take over) and they are currently proving their worth in the side. It’s all in the transition, where we have to make sure that young players are coming into the national team. They have done very well for the team.”

Not a regular at first during his Bafana days, Bartlett knows what it’s like to get an opportunity to play as a youngster at a big tournament and spoke of how important it is to make the most of the chance, for it may not come again.

“Everyone gets upset if they don’t play in the team. It took me a year and half to play regularly. It’s all about grabbing an opporutnity when you get it. My turning point was against Ghana (at the 1996 Cup of Nations semi-final). That game pretty much cemented my place in Bafana from then on. The players now have to put their feet down and cement their places in the team,” said Bartlett, who scored against the Ghanaians in a 3-0 victory at the Cup of Nations

So convinced by the next generation’s displays in the group stages, Bartlett believes the youngsters can lead Bafana to success at this year’s Cup of Nations and cement their places in the team for the future.

“Without a doubt, they can lead Bafana to success. They need to show they can do it.”

When Rantie controlled the ball in the Moroccan box and cleverly played it back to May Mahlangu to sweetly curl it into the top left corner, it was a sign that the next generation of Bafana players are taking over. There could be more of that if Igesund continues to believe in his youngsters.

Bafana face Mali on Saturday night and the young guns could well be key to their success. – Star Africa