The African Cup of Nations kicked off in Egypt on Friday, 21 June 2019. South Africa’s senior national team, Bafana Bafana, are back at the tournament after a two-year ‘hiatus’. And so, grudgingly, the dance between supporters and the team resumes.
Last week Tuesday I was at OR Tambo International Airport. I was part of the contingent of fans, media and officials awaiting the arrival of South Africa’s Senior National Women’s team, Banyana Banyana.
As I went about my business, doing journalistic stuff, I was approached by one of the most recognisable faces in South African sports, Mama Joy Chauke. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, she is the lady who is always sporting traditional Zulu headgear and face paint at mostly, but not solely, Orlando Pirates games.
Mama Joy shared a joke with me going around on social media which spoke to the low expectations South Africans have of their national sporting teams.
It went like this:
“Did you hear what they are saying? They’re saying Banyana Banyana shouldn’t have come back now, they should’ve gone to England to pick up the Proteas, then fly to Egypt to wait for Bafana Bafana, so that they could come back together and we could welcome them all together” she said.
We laugh, but the joke speaks to the state of South Africa’s national teams. It’s very difficult being a fan in the country at the moment. Even the ever-reliable Proteas and Springboks have dropped the proverbial ball in recent times. In fact, if I were to describe my relationship with South African sports teams according to Facebook relationship criteria, I would say: “It’s complicated”. Very complicated. Especially when it comes to Bafana Bafana, the oldest of my sporting flames.
Sigh… Bafana Bafana.
The earliest memory I have of the men’s senior national soccer team is from 23 years ago. I was four and at my maternal grandmother’s house in Mount Frere. It was the 1996 African Cup of Nations; I don’t remember what stage of the competition it was, but I was sitting in my grandmother’s room with my mother, and I kept on hearing commentators shouting Neil Tovey’s name, which I was mimicking. My memory blanks out from then on, up until 2002 — which is ironically the last time Bafana Bafana qualified for a soccer World Cup (2010 doesn’t count).
I remember a bit more of that 2002 World Cup than I do Afcon 96. I remember the euphoria when we took the game to Spain, narrowly losing. Of course, eventually we lost out on qualifying for the last 16. South Africa finished level on points with Paraguay, but the South Americans advanced due to having scored more goals.
From then I struggle for any significant memories of Bafana Bafana; barring one — a friendly match in 2003 between the South African squad and England in which a crunching tackle by defender Thabang Molefe resulted in the then English captain, David Beckham, breaking a bone in his right hand. I can still hear Beckham screaming now.
Performances really dipped after that, with Bafana failing to progress beyond the group stage in the 2004 edition of Afcon, and doing even worse at Afcon 2006, as they were not only eliminated from the tournament, but were booted having failed to score a single goal. Moreover, Bafana failed to qualify for the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany, losing out to Ghana.
By this time my interest in anything remotely related to Bafana was almost non-existent. They had flattered to deceive so many times, and I just couldn’t handle the continued disappointment. So I channelled my energy towards other sports. I got my just rewards in 2007 when the Springboks vanquished England at the Rugby World Cup final in France.
But football was my first and true love, and so with South Africa having been awarded Fifa World Cup hosting rights for the 2010 edition, and excitement gradually building in the country as 2010 drew closer, I once again directed my attention to Bafana Bafana. In 2007 the South African Football Association had grasped my attention once more by luring Brazilian World Cup-winning coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira in a multimillion-rand four-year deal to coach Bafana. Surely things would be better now. This was one of the best coaches in the world and he was coming to coach our boys.
I should’ve known better.
The only thing that changed was Parreira’s bank account. It got fatter. So much so that he decided to suggest to Safa that they should hire his good friend Joel Santana while he took a sabbatical in April 2008 for family reasons. Under Santana, we played some of the most listless, lethargic and aimless football since the beautiful game was invented. It was truly torturous to watch.
Safa agreed and Santana was fired in 2009, in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup dress rehearsal, the Confederations Cup. And Parreira was reappointed to continue coining it.
I think the moment of my ultimate frustration with Bafana came during the above-mentioned Confed Cup. I, like many others, sat in front of the television screen waiting to see Bafana hit the ground running in the tournament. Their opponents for the opening game were Iraq. No disrespect to Iraqi football, but I fully expected the home side to comfortably beat the visitors.
Again, I should’ve known better. The game ended in a drab 0-0 draw. And left me utterly and completely frustrated, largely due to Bafana’s profligacy. From then onwards I swore that I would never invest my emotions in Bafana again.
For the rest of Confed, I held that promise. Even when they fought valiantly against Spain, I was not moved. Of course, they qualified for the semi-finals, going on to face Brazil and narrowly losing to a coolly taken Dani Alves free kick. I couldn’t be bothered.
The World Cup finally arrived when I was in matric and it was a big hoorah at my high school. However, I still had that horrendous performance against Iraq etched on my mind.
Enter Simphiwe Tshabalala with that thunderbolt goal. And for a second, I was dreaming. Until I came crashing back to reality. Bafana could have won that game. But again, they failed to finish the job and Mexico equalised. Of course, they beat 1998 world champions, France. However, that victory was no different to kicking a dog while it was down as there was a mutiny in the French camp.
At the end of the group stage, Bafana finished level on four points with Mexico, but were knocked out thanks to an inferior goal difference, thus becoming the first host nation to be eliminated in the group stage of a Fifa World Cup.
Fast forward to nine years later and nearly a decade with more disappointment — failures to qualify for Afcon tournaments, the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and their poor showing when they hosted the 2014 African Nations Championship, which led to then-Minister of Sport Fikile Mbalula branding them “a bunch of losers”.
Afcon 2019 is under way, but will Bafana be able to drop that description?
Stuart Baxter has brought back some stability. Bafana qualified for the tournament undefeated. They will face Ivory Coast, neighbours Namibia and Morocco in the group stage. I, for one, am not hopeful that they will make it to the knockout stages. But my optimistic, patriotic inner self will be hoping that they prove me wrong and go all the way to win Afcon 2019.
By Yanga Sibembe, daily maverick