After a comeback performance in front of their home crowd at the African Cup of Nations, South Africa could make a strong run during World Cup qualifying, writes Jonathan Wilson.
South Africa is hoping to turn the tide during World Cup qualifying
South Africa could not have asked for a kinder draw in their World Cup qualifying pool.
Collectively, Botswana, Ethiopia and Central African Republic have appeared in just two Cups of Nations in the past 30 years. After all the recent setbacks and frustrations, the draw seemed a golden opportunity to at least reach the play-off round that follows the group stage.
The opening game against Ethiopia last June suggested just how great the disillusionment around the national team in South Africa has become. Only 13,000 turned up at Royal Bafokeng Stadium outside Rustenburg, and the majority were Ethiopian. South Africa played pitifully and escaped with a 1-1 draw.
They took the lead through Morgan Gould in the second game, at Botswana, but conceded a silly goal and ended up drawing that match as well. What could have been a stroll has become an anxious trudge, and today's game against Central African Republic in Cape Town has taken on immense importance.
It's not just about position in the group, although with Ethiopia likely to win at home to Botswana on Sunday, there is the danger they could start to pull away should South Africa slip up.
It's also about capitalising on Bafana's qualified success in the Cup of Nations. Then, they started poorly against Cape Verde, but showed enough heart against Angola and Morocco to make it to an emotional quarter-final in which they went to Mali, but played with enough determination that their elimination on penalties could be viewed as heroic failure.
Still, as of Thursday, fewer than 20,000 tickets had been sold for a stadium that holds three times that.
"We have come a long way in a short space of time," said their manager, Gordon Igesund. "As the tournament went on, the players started to believe in themselves and played good football. Now there is a lot confidence, a lot of camaraderie in the team and good spirit.
"Our mission is to qualify for Brazil in 2014. Yes, it is a tough task, but I don't think we will feel the kind of pressure we felt when we started the Afcon 2013 tournament, where we were not given a chance. I have no doubt in my in my mind that we will do well because we are not under the same pressure as we were then."
One of the stars of the Cup of Nations campaign was the central defender Siyabonga Sangweni, but a knee injury has forced his withdrawal and with the left-back Tsepo Masilela also out, there are major concerns defensively.
"I'm quite confident with the central defenders I have," said Igesund.
"Mulomowandao Mathoho has been playing well, Siyanda Xulu was just recently selected man of the match, we also have Thabo Nthethe, who is a very good player; so I have a lot of cover in those positions. It's just unfortunate that they might not have played together in the positions, so I have to give a lot of work into that. I am also aware that Mathoho and Gould play together at Kaizer Chiefs, but it does not mean that is the combination I will go with. It is just disappointing as no one wants to lose any player to injury."
CAR will be far from pushovers and are one of Africa's improving sides. They were comfortably too good for Botswana in the qualifier in Bangui and although they went out to the eventual finalists, Burkina Faso, in the final round of Cup of Nations qualifying, they beat them in the home leg, having already eliminated Egypt.
The big doubt, though, is whether they can continue their progress after the resignation last year of the French coach, Jules Accorsi, who claimed he had not been paid in eight months.
For South Africa, this should be a great opportunity to take advantage, but we've said that before.