Bafana Bafana‘s journey to the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) semi-finals was by no means an easy ride, with coach Hugo Broos‘ largely South Africa-based side being ridiculed and looked down upon leading up to Africa’s showpiece event.
However, with Ronwen Williams leading the players on the pitch, they embodied the South African spirit in its truest form. After suffering a humbling 0-2 defeat to Mali in their opening fixture, they showed grit and determination to complete a quick turnaround of their fortunes.
With Themba Zwane in the centre of the action in midfield, South Africa carved their way to the semi-finals, which touched the hearts of the nation.
Despite hitting a brick wall and being denied a spot in the final by the Super Eagles, Nigeria, after a penalty shootout, following a 1-1 draw, the campaign delivered moments that echoed the class of 1996, which lifted the Afcon title on South African shores.
“I remember, I was 15 years old at the time and still in the development stage of my career, playing for Jomo Cosmos,” South African Football Association (Safa) Assistant Head Scout and former Bafana Bafana captain, Aaron Mokoena, recalled in an exclusive interview with SuperSport Schools.
“I had just signed my first professional contract, [and was] training with the first team and occasionally playing in the u19 team. It was a dream for me to represent my country and the fact that the class of ’96 went on to win that tournament really uplifted my spirit and belief system.”
Mokoena went from being an inspired youngster to captaining Bafana Bafana in the first and only Fifa World Cup played in Africa in 2010, when South Africa hosted the event. The 43-year-old told SuperSport Schools that he was driven to inspire youngsters at the grassroots level whenever he donned the South African colours.
“It did play at the back of our minds, besides us being focused on getting onto the pitch and performing well. We always knew that there were youngsters who looked up to us and who wanted to be where we were in the future.
“It’s always in your mind as a player, and it motivates you, not only to perform but to also go back to the grassroots and give back to the same structures that made you the players that you are.”
Wednesday’s semi-finals appearance was the first time that Bafana Bafana had progressed to that stage of the tournament since 2000, when they finished third, with a squad that included Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish, Quinton Fortune, Shaun Barlett, John “Shoes’ Moshoeu, Pierre Issa, Siyabonga Nomvete, Eric Tinkler and Andre Arendse, among others.
With South African football having gone through many ups and downs in recent years, the 2023 campaign has re-energised the country’s footballing space and given hope to aspiring football players in schools and academies across the country.
“I was impressed with the performance of the boys because for you to play at that level, you have to be mentally strong and be very well prepared,” Mokoena said.
“I hope that this campaign will motivate the youngsters that it is possible.
“I hope the performance of the boys in Cote d’Ivoire motivates the youngsters to say, ‘When you work hard and get an opportunity, don’t look back’.”