SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 15, General view during the meeting between Bafana Bafana players and President Jacob Zuma (State President of the Republic of South Africa) at Orlando Stadium on January 15, 2013 in Soweto, South Africa Photo by Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

Johannesburg – When he took over the Bafana Bafana reins on the eve of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations, Jomo Sono was so unpopular that, he claims, not a single supporter was at the airport to bid the team farewell as they departed for Burkina Faso.

“There was no one there. We could only see a cat running around, looking lost. It bade us farewell,” Sono recalled on Wednesday.

But at the end of the tournament, Sono’s men were hailed as national heroes, having reached the final against all odds, only to lose to Egypt. They may have surrendered the title won on home soil in 1996, but that magnificent performance remains one of Bafana’s most memorable moments in their history.

With the tournament now back on these shores and kicking off on Saturday with Bafana’s clash against Cape Verde (National Stadium, 6pm), mixed feelings exist among South Africans, with many fearing a humiliation given the team’s freefall in the last decade, and others optimistic that home ground advantage could push the team beyond the group stages.

Sono is among the optimists, given his own experience all those years ago. “I got the job a month before the tournament in Burkina Faso, and we didn’t have the best of preparations because we lost to Namibia just before we left. People deserted us, saying we would be thrashed,” the Jomo Cosmos owner said.

That he had dismantled the triumphant ’96 team made Sono even more detested, with men such as Doctor Khumalo, André Arendse and Shaun Bartlett left out of his final squad. But he took a major risk by including the likes of Benni McCarthy and Brian Baloyi, throwing them straight into his starting XI.

It paid immediate dividends, although Bafana initially struggled as they drew their opening two games against Ivory Coast and Angola, requiring a McCarthy masterclass in the final group fixture against the Namibians – he scored four goals in a 4-1 win – to make it into the knockout phase.

“When we drew against Ivory Coast, I knew we’d qualify for the next round,” Sono said. “But back at home, we still didn’t have the support. We had chartered a plane to Burkina Faso and our pilot had been told to prepare to leave after three games.”

Needless to say, Bafana stayed for the duration of the tournament, unfortunate to lose to Egypt in the final. They were met by thousands of cheerful supporters upon their arrival at OR Tambo Airport, having bagged Bafana a silver medal.

Whether the current Bafana bunch can get even that close remains a source of debate among their fans who’ve seen the team plumb to new depths recently, having failed to win a Nations Cup match for nine years.

Sono, however, is convinced Gordon Igesund’s team can reach at least the second round. “They can do it. Gordon should just aim for five points – beat Cape Verde on Saturday, and look for draws against Angola (Wednesday) and Morocco (January 27). That’s how we qualified (in 1998). Cape Verde should be our best bet to get three points. They will be playing in front of 80 000 people and they won’t handle that.”

The Cosmos boss, who also acted as technical advisor to Clive Barker’s 1996 heroes, said Bafana should ignore negativity from the press and general population. “You need to switch off. Do not listen to radio or read papers. Just focus on your job. Individuals react differently to criticism, so (in 1998) we decided to switch off completely from the press,” he advised.

Sono was last year announced as one of Igesund technical advisors, but he has yet to hear anything from the SA Football Association. Nevertheless, he has also already done his bit to help the nation.

“I watched Morocco play two friendlies recently, so I will be preparing a report for Gordon. I’m not expecting any compensation for that because I’m a South African and I want to see this team succeed.” – The Star