JOHANNESBURG – Thulani Hlatshwayo, the new permanent Bafana Bafana captain, is not your one-stop shop for explosive quotes. But the little that he gives you is often convincing enough, like on Tuesday when the physical defender spoke of how, despite the statistics not favouring South Africa, they have previously run Nigeria close.
The two sides collide once again on Saturday in Uyo, a tough assignment as Bafana seek to start their qualification to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations with much more potency than they did two years ago. Then, under Shakes Mashaba, who has since been replaced by Stuart Baxter, Hlatshwayo and his teammates played to a goalless draw at home against The Gambia in Durban and followed that up with a humiliating 3-1 defeat away to lowly Mauritania in Nouakchott.
“I am up for the job,” said the skipper, getting that out of the way first, seeing as he was speaking to the media for the first time as Bafana captain, before adding “I captained the national team against Nigeria before, when we played in Mbombela (in March 2015) and we unfortunately only managed a draw in a game I think we should have won, after we missed a penalty. We were dominant.”
In 12 meetings against the Super Eagles, only one win is registered under the victory column for Bafana, a 2-1 win in the Mandela Challenge in 2004. Baxter was the coach, and he will be desperate for a repeat.
It’s a psychological edge that Nigeria seem to have over their counterparts. But there is a new broom -so to speak – in Baxter and the coach has affirmed that his players are in high spirits because of competition for places.
There's also the fact that they are gearing up for Nigeria, the 2013 African champions, who still hold a grudge against Bafana after they denied them the opportunity to defend their trophy two years later in Equatorial Guinea. Mashaba’s Bafana finished top of a qualifying group, above Nigeria, Sudan and Congo, and managed impressive draws against the Super Eagles both home and away.
“They have that arrogance about them, which means our job is to be 100 percent focused and not give them any space. It fair to say we know enough about Nigeria because it is a side we have played from the junior level to the senior ranks over the years and because they are such a physical team, usually their style doesn’t change,” said Hlatshwayo.
“I believe we are as good as our last game. We played against Guinea-Bissau (3-1 win) and Angola (0-0 draw) recently and we were sharp. The core of that team is here for this qualifier. I spoke to the coach and he told me he didn’t want to make too many changes and kill the momentum.
"He is building on that energy we had from the last time we played. What is important for us is to be aware during the critical phases, and previous games against Nigeria show that we haven’t done well in that department.”