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Africa Cup of Nations

COMMENT: Bafana Bafana become Afcon contenders on night to remember

13:17 IST 07/07/2019
Stuart Baxter, South Africa - July 2019
It was a night that will live long in the memories of many South African football fans, but the work is not done yet...

Energetic, organised, creative and determined - Bafana Bafana’s 2019 Africa Cup of Nations match-winning performance against Egypt on Saturday demonstrated many of the qualities that have often been absent from the national side over the last decade.

Prior to the kick-off of their Round of 16 clash, such a performance would have been seen as a mere dream considering the negativity which has surrounded the national team of late.

Pragmatism has been the buzzword when it comes to Bafana, but on Saturday night, this was not the case as Bafana finally expressed themselves in a high-profile bout.

Baxter must also be lauded for his bravery despite coming under fire for the team's performances in the group stage. 

While the coach kept faith in the core of the team, the decision to alter his approach proved a masterstroke, and for a coach who is quite often criticised for his reluctance to make changes, it was a breath of fresh air.

In addition, Thembinkosi Lorch’s introduction proved pivotal because not only did he come up with the all-important winner, but his contribution upfront on the night justifed Baxter's faith.

Many will argue that it took too long for Baxter to throw him into the mix, and perhaps his detractors will say that it was only down to the suspension of Themba Zwane that the coach had faith in Lorch.

However, the coach deserves credit, not so much for choosing the reigning Premier Soccer League Footballer of the Season, but for being brave enough to change things around when it mattered most.

This has always been Baxter’s Achilles Heel in the eyes of fans. and it was a sign of growth to see the 65-year-old be more positive and loosen the shackles.  

The more positive approach suited Bafana.

They are known for their flair and creativity - attributes which they lacked during the group stage as the players appeared to be treated with kid gloves and were deprived of the freedom to express themselves.

This was a similar critique to Clive Barker, the 1996 Afcon winning coach - who in a recent interview, suggested the players did not look like they were enjoying themselves under his successor.

“Bafana Bafana have plenty of room to improve because they have been terrible up until now," Barker told Sport24. "The players don't look like they are really enjoying themselves and have appeared frightened to venture over the halfway line."

Nonetheless, in front of a packed and boisterous Cairo International Stadium on Saturday, Bafana were different.

The players looked hungrier and, most importantly, happy to don the national team jersey. The celebrations after the full-time whistle sounded was a culmination of their desire to win and to prove a nation wrong.

Not even the most ardent Bafana fan expected such a thrilling performance, but the players were determined to give a nation which has too often let its fans down in recent years by underachieving, experience a sense of euphoria.

There could be no better way to prove yourself than against the best and Bafana did just that.

Kamohelo Mokotjo arguably had his best game in a Bafana shirt, Dean Furman was immense, Percy Tau shone alongside Lebo Mothiba, and Lorch had everyone singing. There wasn’t a Bafana player who didn’t stand up to be counted. 

It was a beautiful performance and an unforgettable night for South African football.

Even Sifiso Hlanti, who was less than convincing against Ivory Coast and Morocco, produced a defensively sound performance as he kept the talismanic Mohamed Salah at bay.

No matter where you looked, from Cairo to the Cape, the name Bafana has been on everyone’s lips, but the work is not done yet.

Next up, Bafana take on a traditional rivals Nigeria, and fans will now expect to see Bafana display a similar performance with a possible semi-final in reach.

It's easy to forget Bafana's struggles in times like these, but South African fans know business is not done just yet, and win or lose against the Super Eagles, few will forget their performance against the Pharaohs.