South Africa is the continent's richest country, their best player will not lead and a tailspin since the 2010 World Cup has left the host country asking questions, writes Ian Hawkey.
African Cup of Nations: 'Bafana Bafana' need to shine on home soil
Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, took his entourage to Orlando stadium in Soweto at the beginning of the week to visit the national squad.
Such gestures tend to be symbolic rather than genuinely motivational, a populist photo opportunity for the politician more than a gee up for the players.
Only exceptionally does a statesman actually carry match-winning adrenalin in his manifesto.
Once upon a time, South Africa had such a leader, a man who sensed the power of sport to rally a fragile nation and knew his own charisma.
A Hollywood blockbuster – Invictus – has been made about how Nelson Mandela, just over a year into his tenure as the country's first democratically elected head of state, donned a Springbok jersey during a Rugby World Cup and in doing so turned a minority pastime in his country into something that healed fractured social boundaries.
Mandela values football, the country's most popular sport, too, and witnessed some memorable moments as president with Bafana Bafana, as South Africa are nicknamed.
Zuma can barely turn on his television, or pick up a newspaper at the moment without seeing images of a sprightly Mandela in the garish gold, black and white zigzag jersey of the 1996 national team, the grey-haired, grinning Mandela sprawled on the grass at Soweto's Soccer City with the players surrounding the African Cup of Nations trophy.
That was the last time a Nations Cup was hosted in South Africa, and the only time the continent's richest nation, who kick off the 29th Afcon on Friday against Cape Verde in Soweto, have been the continent's champions.
It was also their first finals as participants, because for most of the 20th century, the country was banned from mainstream international sport because of its apartheid policies.
The Mandela era, the dawn of democracy, brought so many milestones, and rapidly: the club Orlando Pirates won the African Champions Cup in 1995, Bafana Bafana the Nations Cup the following year and South Africa then qualified for a maiden World Cup in 1998. But the journey since has been in one direction: downhill.
Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the last two Nations Cup finals. Ranked outside Africa's top 20 by Fifa, they may not even have made it to this one had they not stepped in to host the event once Libya pulled out.
Two and a half years ago, they became the first host nation to go out of a World Cup at the group phase. The deterioration is puzzling. Episodes of bad management may have played a part.
South Africa have one of the most scattergun records on the continent in the hiring and firing of national head coaches; the Football Association, Safa, is also currently bearing some of the embarrassment from a recent match-fixing scandal, surrounding referees appointed by an independent promoter for a series of friendly matches Bafana Bafana played in the lead-up to the last World Cup. Five senior Safa officials are under internal investigation.
And Bafana Bafana will be without probably their best player here in front of their home crowds.
Everton's Steven Pienaar, the former captain of South Africa, told his head coach Gordon Igesund last October he wanted a break from international football.
Pienaar, who returned to Everton 12 months ago after an unsatisfying year with Tottenham Hotspur, is playing some of the best club football of his career. He has a momentum in the English Premier League which neither he or his club want interrupted.
Momentum for Bafana Bafana has been harder to muster. Pienaar told recently how: "It is sometimes hard to motivate the side when results go against you."
He also wondered if the South African domestic league offered some of its leading players – and the majority of Bafana's squad are picked from the local championship – too much, too soon, a comfort zone that dulled their competitive edge.
Africa's wealthiest league is an enigma in that way. No club from it has matched Pirates' 1995 achievement in the pan-continental Champions League.
Yet the league's ever-rising and relatively high television revenues mean handsome wages, particularly at clubs such as the Kaizer Chiefs, Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns.
That attracts players from across Africa: 26 footballers employed in the South African Premier Soccer League, PSL, will take part in the Nations Cup, spread around the squads of Togo, Zambia, Ghana and Niger as well as Bafana.
Igesund's credentials for the national job, which he was offered last summer, include a series of title wins with various clubs in the PSL. He played with distinction in the 1970s and 80s when South Africa's football was just starting to bridge the apartheid divisions between black and white.
"When I look back to that, I appreciate how far we have come as a nation," he said.
Progress as a team is his priority now. The 56 year old has looked a little thin-skinned, as Bafana Bafana have laboured through friendlies and conspicuously struggled in front of goal.
"We've still got a lot of work to do," said Igesund after a 0-0 draw with Algeria last weekend. He is anxious about the match fitness of Thulani Serero, the Ajax Amsterdam winger who is returning from a long lay-off and how to compensate for Pienaar's significant role in delivering set pieces.
But home support, historically, counts for a lot in African Nations Cups. It helped Bafana Bafana during the Mandela era.
"There is a great vibe in the country regarding our national team," said Igesund, "and the boys will be very difficult to beat if huge crowds turn up and start blowing their vuvuzelas and getting behind the team."
That was his rallying cry ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Cape Verde, a country who have never qualified for a Nations Cup before, has a population of about a 100th of that of South Africa, but who currently stand eight places higher in the continent's grading of African teams than Bafana do.
On the Highveld around Johannesburg, there is palpable excitement. Today has been declared "Football Friday", something introduced during the 2010 World Cup where people are encouraged to wear Bafana Bafana jerseys – now a mellow yellow colour, not the jagged gold, white and black of 17 years ago – to work.
Not so long ago, Nelson Mandela would have been urged to have himself photographed in one, but, with his health frail and retirement well earned, the great leader is allowed his peace and quiet.
It is left to Zuma to perform the state blessings, urge optimism. In Orlando, surveying a stadium refurbished for the last World Cup and one of many landmark symbols of how that event was to boost the sport in South Africa, Zuma did some grandstanding for the team.
He railed against the "too many critics in the country" and told the 23 men about to represent the country "to relax, and not be tense and not to listen to the critics".
They will still sense a heavy pressure on them.
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