Mark Fish shouts instructions form the South Africa bench during the 2019 Afcon Finals last 16 match between Egypt and South Africa. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

CAIRO – Bafana Bafana legend Mark Fish looks back at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) semi-final defeat to Nigeria with regret for a number of reasons.

The winner of the 1996 Afcon was part of the Bafana team that finished with a bronze medal four years later. But for a moment, another Afcon title was on the cards for Bafana when they beat one of the co-hosts, Ghana, in the quarter-finals to march into the last four.

The other hosts, Nigeria, brought Bafana back to reality with a 2-0 defeat in Lagos. Two goals from Tijani Babangida forced Fish and company to fight for third place with Tunisia.

“The euphoria of the stands, the performance of the team - Babangida especially, was electric,” Fish reminisces on the loss to Nigeria. “It was a disappointing result for us because of how well we did to get there.

It was the most disappointing of the three Afcons I played in from a tactical awareness point of view. I remember that in the quarter-finals, Eric Tinkler got sent off and we dropped to four at the back and in midfield.

“I thought because of the way we were setup, that suited us better. I remember going into the semi-final, the coach Trott Moloto called us as senior players and spoke about the game. I thought that the best approach for us would have been 4-4-2.

Yes, a lot of blame was put on me but it wasn’t solely my fault. We had a central defender, Pierre Issa, who didn’t play as a sweeper. He didn’t want to pick up players. It made it difficult for all of us. My memory of that is that we should have gone 4-4-2.”

Mark Fish watches looks on during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals training session. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix
Mark Fish watches looks on during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals training session. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Almost two decades later, Fish is back in the national team about to take on Nigeria. This time he is a technical team member, roped in as a second assistant by Stuart Baxter with the aim of bringing in a legend who will inspire the players. This team, however, is unlike Fish’s generation.

They don’t fear Nigeria, having beaten them for the first time in a competitive match in the qualifiers of this Afcon. Bafana collected four points from the Super Eagles in their two matches.

“This team has moved on,” Fish said. “Us, I don’t want to say fear because obviously you respect your opponents, but maybe there was an element of fear playing Nigeria in Nigeria. But now we are over that.

The players are more mature. Everyone around the Bafana team looks more unified than it was the case in 2000. The confidence of the players, having played at the qualifiers and beaten them is high, but we have moved from that result and we don’t fear them.”

Stuart Baxter, head coach of South Africa (centre) embraced by Andre Arendse (left)  and Mark Fish (right) during the match against hosts Egypt. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
Stuart Baxter, head coach of South Africa (centre) embraced by Andre Arendse (left) and Mark Fish (right) during the match against hosts Egypt. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

Like the class of 2000, this Bafana team will go to their clash with Nigeria tomorrow night at Cairo International Stadium on a high after eliminating the hosts, Egypt. But Fish has called for caution.

“The first thing the coach said is that what you achieved against Egypt, well done. Enjoy the moment, but your head must never be in the clouds.”

Malik Said