Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

South Africa's demise has left qualification for 2019 Africa Cup of Nations hanging by a thread

The continent's richest nation takes on its poorest - Libya - at a neutral venue on Sunday in a winner-takes-all match

South Africa players celebrate a goal during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria in June 2017. South Africa must avoid defeat against Libya in their final qualifier to be assured of a place in Egypt. AFP
South Africa players celebrate a goal during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria in June 2017. South Africa must avoid defeat against Libya in their final qualifier to be assured of a place in Egypt. AFP

Around 11,000 kilometres separate Cape Town from Sfax in Tunisia. A whole world of resource and privilege distinguishes the teams from either ends of their continent who this evening in Sfax fight for one place in the finals of the next Africa Cup of Nations.

One will be playing in a borrowed home, exiled over the border because of political instability. The other comes from a home so well-equipped for their favourite sport that it hosted a World Cup. And that’s just the start of the long list of differences between the Libya who need to beat South Africa to leapfrog them in qualifying Group E to make it to Egypt in June and the South Africans who risk missing out entirely on the expanded, new-look Afcon.

That Libya have a chance is a salute to against-the-odds determination. That they scored eight goals in their last qualifier, against a feeble Seychelles, is ominous for their opponents, who drew 0-0 when they went to Seychelles. This after having won away in Nigeria, the group leaders, at the outset of the campaign. But that momentum was soon lost, mirroring the longer story of South Africa’s demise in African football.

Next month, the whole of South Africa will celebrate 25 years of democracy, of the new dawn ushered in by Nelson Mandela’s election as president of a country whose majority had suffered under one of the most grotesque political systems of the 20th century, apartheid, based on racial segregation and the denial of opportunity for the black population.

Freedom meant the end of decades of isolating sanctions. Nowhere was renewed international citizenship felt as emotionally as in sport. Mandela promoted it as a vehicle for nation-building, for healing divisions. He put himself centre stage when the country won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Less than nine months later, he cheered its footballers, players representing the country’s most popular sport, as they hosted and won the Africa Cup of Nations.

That triumph remains South Africa’s only gold medal in an Afcon. They finished second defending the title. Then the long fade. South Africa, known as "Bafana Bafana", failed to qualify at all for three of the last five tournaments. As for World Cups, they were at 2010, as hosts, but exited at the group stage.

So what happened to the go-getting national sport of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation? Not a shortage of money. Its domestic league, the Premier Soccer League, has the biggest broadcast and sponsorship deals in Africa, and some of the most popular clubs, like Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, and Mamelodi Sundowns. One former captain of the national team tells me that may be a problem, that “the top players in the PSL enter a sort of a comfort zone,” and “lack hunger” once they reach the top tier of local club football.

Certainly, South African players travel less well they did, no longer conspicuous in the Uefa Champions League as they were in the early 2000s, when Lucas Radebe was at a successful Leeds United, Steven Pienaar at Ajax Amsterdam and Benni McCarthy’s goals helped Porto win the 2004 European Cup. The squad aiming to snatch a point from Libya on Sunday includes men based in Europe, but can hardly claim they are all in top form: neither Keagan Dolly or Bongani Zungu have played a single Ligue 1 minute for their French clubs, Montpellier and Amiens, since September.

“The money is there, the structures and facilities are there, and so is the talent,” says Clive Barker, the coach of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations triumph. “What is not there is the leadership.” He points a finger at Safa (South African Football Association), the game’s governing body, who suffered its latest setback when South Africa, with its vast array of World Cup stadiums, failed in its bid to step in as 2019 Afcon hosts when Cameroon were stripped of the event.

So now Bafana Bafana nervously try to eke out a spot, on the last night of qualification, in Africa’s top 24, to at least give the national game a focus in what is a very big year. Besides the anniversary of democracy, there are World Cups in cricket and rugby ahead, sports at which South Africa aspires to be champion. Football too often feels like their underachieving, declining cousin.

Ian Hawkey is co-author of Vuvuzela Dawn, the story of sport in South Africa since democracy, to be published by Pan Macmillan in April.

Updated: March 24, 2019 08:26 AM

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