I get goosebumps when I speak about the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. I’m getting them speaking about it now.
The whole thing was electrifying. You had all the colour, because you know that in Africa we like to bring colour to football. There was the sea of fans as we travelled to games, and us in South Africa hosting the tournament for the first time after apartheid. Winning it for South Africa was out of this world. Everyone was in tears, tears of jubilation. The country deserved it after everything it had been through, all the reconstruction. Football gave us joy and relief. Football made it happen for the Rainbow Nation.
It’s also the only time South Africa have won the tournament which seems strange to say but I can tell you, the people here are starting to dream again. We have Bafana Fridays, where we wear the Bafana Bafana shirt. AFCON is like our mini World Cup and for someone like me, it’s inspiring. The tension was everywhere when we played Morocco on Tuesday and it felt like the country stopped, even though the game kicked off at 10pm (8pm GMT, 3pm ET). That free-kick from Teboho Mokoena to make it 2-0 at the end… honestly, the whole nation went mad when it went in.
Might be the most satisfying goal you’ll see tonight. #AFCON2023
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) January 30, 2024
Was the win expected? I don’t think so. I’d say those of us watching were 50-50 and before the tournament started, I wouldn’t say there was much confidence in how South Africa were going to do. The group stage wasn’t easy and people have been criticising some of the team selections. Morocco were the No 1 team in the competition. But even so, we felt that they might suffer from fatigue. In the conditions, I thought South Africa’s tactics were just right: making sure we didn’t concede in the first half because if Morocco were going to tire, we’d have an opportunity later in the game. Surviving the first half was the most important thing.
They had so many chances and I was there thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ When I saw our first goal, I worried it was offside. And then the penalty Morocco missed (by Achraf Hakimi) — a truly crazy game. Until that point, we’d played countries who we really thought we should beat or definitely thought we could beat. Now, into the quarter-finals, you start to hope that this might be our chance. But it will still be tough from here. Even Cape Verde, our next opponents, look very good. They’ve been a surprise but they deserve to be there. Surprises are where African football and AFCON comes into its own.
The South Africa squad is interesting and unusual. If you look through it, you will see that so many of the players in it play for South African clubs, Mamelodi Sundowns in particular. Eight of the line-up on Tuesday were players from the Sundowns. The coach, Hugo Broos, was criticised for this a lot. The public asked why he was using so many players from the South Africa leagues, rather than somewhere like Europe.
You see now that so many of the players involved in AFCON are with European clubs. But for me, I understood what he was trying to do, what the bigger plan was. It was a reason why I felt quite hopeful at this tournament — because so many of the squad know each other from their club.
The Sundowns are a strong team who have won the African Champions League. The domestic league here is much stronger than a lot of leagues in Africa and players here get paid enough, which means they don’t have to automatically think about moving away. Obviously there is still big appeal in European football. We all watch lots of it and for a boy like me growing up, there was so much more to this than football. Life could be tough and opportunities in the game could change that. There was a lot beyond the sport itself, a lot at stake in life. But these days, our attitude when we watch European football is to think about how we could be better; how football in South Africa can get stronger.
This South Africa squad doesn’t have everything. For example, we don’t have any really prolific goalscorers. Evidence Makgopa, who scored the first goal against Morocco, isn’t that type of forward but he battles well and he gives other players like Themba Zwane and Percy Tau the chance to do so. The team are committed and they play for each other. Even though it was mixed feelings before the Morocco game, you could tell that a lot of us were thinking, ‘We’ve got a chance here’. Now we hope the same is true of the whole competition.
I still have my medal from ’96. I have all the memories too. Because it’s the last time we won AFCON and, because as a nation it hasn’t gone well for us in football for a while, it’s still what everyone still talks about. Rugby has had better times and we joke that when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, we won AFCON a year later. So maybe the same is about to happen again. I want this generation to write a new script. I want them to erase some of the talk about ’96 — not to erase the achievement but to make sure that when South Africa talks about AFCON, it has new inspiration to speak about. The feelings of ’96, they never left me. And they never will.
(Top image: Mokoena celebrates the clinching goal that booked South Africa a quarter-final place. Photo: Sia Kambou)
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