Durban - Gordon Igesund said on Saturday he will only regard this Africa Cup of Nations as a true personal success story if he takes his side all the way to continental glory on home soil.
It has been 11 years since Bafana Bafana last qualified for the quarter-finals of the Cup of Nations, Carlos Queiroz’s South Africa beaten by Mali in the last eight in 2002.
At Moses Mabhida Stadium here on Sunday (7pm), in front of a fervent home crowd, Bafana will attempt to shatter that depressing statistic, needing only a point against Morocco to guarantee their progress.
Igesund, however, clearly wants much more than this. An optimist in the face of all evidence ahead of this tournament, he has constantly said he believes his side can match the class of 1996 and go all the way again. Even his South African Football Association mandate to reach at least the semi-finals does not seem enough for Bafana’s coach.
“You only get recognised as a coach by winning things,” he said on Saturday.
“You are judged by what titles you win. Just qualifying for the quarter-finals is a nice achievement, but nothing out of this world. Winning the Afcon is special. Qualifying is what we are supposed to do.”
Backed by a fantastic performance against Angola on Wednesday night, this statement suddenly comes with a little more credibility. If the opening draw with Cape Verde sent a country further into footballing depression, the scintillating win over Palancas Negras has been like a shot of adrenalin into the heart of a nation.
Igesund’s job has been to keep his players’ feet firmly on the ground with a result still required against Morocco. For all the fervour after Angola, a Bafana loss this evening, coupled with victory for Cape Verde over Angola (7pm), will see South Africa exit the competition.
“The players will be ready, we all know what we have to do. We have a bit of momentum, the crowd has been fantastic, but let’s go out (on Sunday) and put in a good performance, with good attitude,” said Igesund.
Morocco go into this match desperate for victory after drawing their first two games with Cape Verde and Angola. Bafana are likely to have to weather an early storm from the Atlas Lions, but an attacking game, argues Igesund, could also work in their favour.
“I hope they come at us, it will be a very open game, and we back ourselves in those situations,” said Igesund. “They have to win. Every game so far, teams have put players behind the ball. This could be a bit more open and we will have to make sure we score some goals as well. They will take risks and when they take risks, we will have to be prepared to capitalise on it.”
In terms of Igesund’s own goalscorers, he received a boost on Saturday as Tokelo Rantie returned to training, though it remains unclear whether he will start on Sunday.
Lehlohonolo Majoro was des-cribed by Igesund as “definitely out”.
Morocco have the look of a side in transition, wanting to do well at this tournament but also building for the next Cup of Nations on home soil in 2015. Coach Rachid Taoussi only came into the job when Belgian Eric Gerets was sacked in September and on Saturday he wavered between pumping up his side’s ability to win against Bafana and stressing his lack of time in the job.
“Of course this game will be very important for us. More than that, it is a final. We are preparing ourselves on all sides – tactically, technically, physically,” said Taoussi.
“We have prepared ourselves in a good way to play South Africa. Sometimes your feeling tells you what is going to happen and I have a good feeling they (Morocco) can do it.
“When I started my job, the team was very weak and poor, so we have tried hard to build things up.
“We are coming here to pass the first round. After that we will prepare our team to be the best in future. The average age of the side is 24”
Taoussi certainly has some young talent in his squad, like 24-year-old Liverpool winger Oussama Assaidi and the new superstar of Moroccan football, 22-year-old Younes Belhanda. Belhanda will, however, miss the Bafana game after picking up yellow cards against Angola and Cape Verde.
“We were in the same position in 2002 in Mali,” added Taoussi.
“I hope we will turn it around here in South Africa.”
The Moroccan coach was referring to the final group game against Bafana in 2002 when Queiroz’s side assured their place in the last eight with a 3-1 win after both sides had drawn their first two games.
This time Bafana are in the ascendancy, but must be careful not to take their foot off the gas. South Africa holds its collective breath.