Let’s be honest, the South African cricket and rugby teams go into major tournaments automatically among the contenders for the trophy. Bafana Bafana, these days, most certainly do not.
Bafana came into this tournament with expectations arguably at an all-time low. South Africa had won three matches in total at the previous seven Africa Cup of Nations they had taken part in. Baxter’s preparation time was long enough, helped by the competition being moved to June/July, but was riddled with frustration too, with only one friendly international organised ahead of the competition.
And in the group stages, South Africa hardly looked like a team destined for greatness – they were well-organised at the back, for sure, but going forward, there was just no harmony.
There was not a shot on target in defeat to Ivory Coast, a victory over Namibia that was more of a struggle than it should have been, and a last minute loss to Morocco, where a valiant defensive display was spoiled by a late loss of concentration,a and where again a Bafana goal never looked likely.
South Africa, in the end, were the very last team to be sure of a spot in the last 16, relying on other results to go their way to make it through.
Surely the last 16 game against one of the tournament favourites Egypt, in front of 70 000 home fans at the Cairo International Stadium, was a bridge way too far? Instead, Baxter’s men produced Bafana’s best performance at an Afcon finals in a long, long time.
They not only beat the Pharaohs, they thoroughly deserved the victory too, so much so that the Egyptian fans stayed behind to give Bafana an ovation as the final whistle blew.
All of a sudden, the possibilities seem endless, and the Super Eagles in Wednesday’s quarterfinal are a side Bafana have already beaten twice with Baxter in charge.
Nigeria will be favourites, of course, and with sides like Algeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal also still in the mix, there are still a lot of more talented sides, on paper, than Bafana, left in the competition.
And yet, tournament football, especially continental tournament football, is full of stories of countries who beat the odds to conquer. Denmark’s players were famously lying on a beach when they got the call to compete in Euro ’92, and they went on and won it.
Greece (2004) and Portugal, at the most recent Euros in 2016 are also teams that upset the odds en route to a win.
Far closer to home, no one expected Zambia to win the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, but Herve Renard’s side stunned Ghana in the semifinals and the Ivory Coast in the final en route to the trophy. Even Cameroon, who won the last Afcon, were not a side that went into the Gabon 2017 expected to take it home.
You can call Bafana lucky, if you like, to even be in the last 16. But what team has won a tournament without an element of good fortune? Who can forget that Mamelodi Sundowns’ 2016 Caf Champions League success came after they were initially eliminated from the competition!
Portugal, interestingly, won Euro 2016 after going through as the 15th ranked team of the sides in the last 16 of the competition.
It doesn’t really matter how you get there, in other words, as long as you do. And this is the case even more so as you get deeper into a competition. If Bafana Bafana go through to the semifinals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday via a controversial VAR decision, or via a goal that deflects of three pairs of legs before hitting the back of the net, we should not care.
At this stage, it is often not about talent, but about who has the mental strength to take themselves through. Nigeria are a stronger team, with more talented players, but Bafana showed against Egypt that with the right amount of fire in their veins, with the talent they have, they can compete with anyone.
Bafana can win the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations! That’s a sentence I never thought I would write at the start of this tournament.