DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 17, during the Amazulu training session at Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 17, 2012 in Durban, South Africa Photo by Anesh Debiky / Gallo Images

Johannesburg – It’s just as well President Jacob Zuma made a trip to the Bafana Bafana training base this week.

On the eve of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations, the South African national side also got a visit from Nelson Mandela, the meeting with the then President leaving Clive Barker and his boys feeling they had little choice but to lift the competition. And they did it.

“When President Mandela arrived at our hotel with his entourage a day before the opening game against Cameroon, we felt we had a responsibility to make this nation proud,” said Barker, who was head coach then. “He addressed us, giving us words of motivation and that got the whole country behind us.”

Whether Zuma’s visit to Bafana’s Orlando base this week will have had a similar effect by the time they take on Cape Verde on Saturday (National Stadium, 6pm) in this year’s tournament opener remains to be seen, but Barker believes his men could not have secured South Africa’s only continental title without the “Madiba Magic”.

“Madiba was the driving force behind the team … he was like our 12th man,” Barker said of the now 94-year-old revered former statesman.

“His role was huge. Once we won that opening game, there was no stopping us.”

Another driving force behind Bafana was the fact that their rugby counterparts, the Springboks, had lifted the World Cup a year earlier as hosts, so naturally, Barker says, pressure was diverted to the football side.

“I was at Ellis Park when Joel Stransky scored that drop-goal to win us the rugby World Cup in 1995. I knew from that moment that we would be under immense pressure to do the same the following year.

“We were a new democracy and we had seen how the rugby victory helped unite the nation. I was absolutely delighted that we managed to succeed and do the same because football had for many years played a bigger role in bringing our nation together,” Barker said.

Apartheid may have been abolished but South Africans remain divided regarding the prospects of their under-performing Bafana, with others so worried that they are not making arrangements to see the team beyond the group phase.

For Barker, Saturday’s opener against Cape Verde should tell whether or not this lot could emulate the class of ‘96.

“This first match is hugely important – a win is a must,” said Barker, who now coaches Premiership side Bidvest Wits. “We have to target maximum points against Cape Verde because the other group games (against Angola on Wednesday and Morocco on January 27) will be tougher.”

The now 68-year-old Barker urged coach Gordon Igesund not to panic in spite of the national side failing to score in their last two friendlies preceding Saturday’s game.

“Don’t worry Gordon, that goal is coming! (Katlego) Mphela will get it over the line,” he enthused. “We need to go into (Saturday’s match) aiming to score at least one goal.

“Once you get that goal, everyone will know that we have arrived. Everything will fall into place. But until that goal comes, pressure will remain.”

While Barker’s team of 17 years ago went into the tournament on the back of several wins, the current bunch have a lot of convincing to do, having failed to score in recent friendlies against Norway and Algeria.

“It helped us a lot that prior to the 1996 tournament we played in three four-nations tournaments and we won all. It was proper preparation, against proper opposition like Ivory Coast, Egypt, Cameroon, Australia, and others,” Barker said.

His team went on to beat Algeria in the quarter-final, Ghana in the semis, and Tunisia in the final.

“We scored 11 goals in the tournament, but it all started with that 3-0 win over Cameroon, which set a positive tone for us,” Barker said.

Even a single-goal win over Cape Verde tomorrow is sure to send South Africa into a frenzy. – The Star