11 June 2019, by: Carl Lewis

BAFANA BAFANA AFCON JOURNEY: 1996-2017

There was a time when Bafana Bafana was a respected force on the African continent, especially when it came to AFCON. The mid-’90s was the beginning of what can only be described as the golden age for South African football at Africa Cup of Nations.

This period saw South Africa standing shoulder to shoulder with the best on the continent. Knockout football at AFCON was the expected standard from a young nation that as hungry for sporting glory to help build its international status.

The decline began in the mid-2000s when Bafana struggled to break free from the AFCON group stage. The problems of mediocrity eventually compounded each campaign and Bafana have struggled ever since to regain its relevance and prestige.

We’ve charted Bafana Bafana’s AFCON journey from a respected African powerhouse to perennial underachievers of continental football.

1996 - Winners (Clive Barker)

Undoubtedly the finest year in South African football. AFCON 1996 is the defining event in the nation’s football thus far. It was Bafana Bafana’s first tournament since re-admission into international sport. Riding the on the goodwill of a young Rainbow Nation, the hosts lifted their first and only Africa Cup of Nations title.

In their AFCON opener, Bafana beat Cameroon 3-0, which was a sign of things to come. Phil Masinga, Mark Williams and John “Shoes” Mosheu were on the scoresheet. They edged Angola 1-0, Willaims again on target,  before losing to Egypt but they still qualified top of their group.

Into the knockout stages and Bafana’s run continued picking up momentum. Mark Fish scored a late winner against Algeria after Mosheu opend the scoring. In the final four contest against Ghana, South Africa put in another memorable shift as Mosheu scored again, this time a brace alongside Shaun Bartlett’s strike set up a dream final for hosts against Tunisia.

In the final in front 75 000 at Soccer City, substitute striker Williams scored two late second-half goals against Tunisia to secure the most important victory for South Africa. The match still ignites an emotional feeling within anyone who was around at that time. The picture of Neil Tovey lifting the trophy alongside a jubilant Nelson Mandela in front of a packed Soccer City is an iconic image.

The team was loaded with exceptional talents such as John “Shoes” Mosheu, Mark Fish, Phil Masinga, Eric Tinkler, Doctor Khumalo and Shaun Bartlett. South African football has struggled to reach the heights of 1996 ever since.

1998 - Runners up (Jomo Sono)

The tournament will be remembered for the emergence of 20-year-old marksman Benni McCarthy. The striker announced himself onto the international scene by bagging 7 goals at AFCON. McCarthy also picked up the Player of the Tournament award for leading Bafana to a final. McCarthy’s seven-goal haul also included 4 in just 13 minutes against Namibia in the group stages. South Africa went unbeaten in the group stages but finished second behind the powerful Ivory Coast.

They slowly picked up momentum during the course of the tournament and pulled off some impressive results. Firstly, in the quarter-finals against Morocco, they won 2-1. Bafana followed that up with a 2-1 extra-time semi-final victory against DR Congo. McCarthy was again the star bagging a decisive brace.

On the hunt for what would have been an unlikely back-to-back AFCON titles. South Africa succumbed to the excellent Egyptians losing 2-0 in the final. They still had their first ever World Cup appearance in France to look forward to that year.

2000 - Third Place (Trott Moloto)

Another South African striker lit up AFCON, this time it was Shaun Bartlett, he ended as the top scorer with five goals at the tournament held in Ghana and Nigeria. Bartlett scored in every group match (DR Congo, Gabon and Algeria) which ensured an easy passage into the knockout stages for Bafana.

It was the other South African striker Siyabonga Nomvete who chipped in with a crucial goal to edge Ghana in the quarter-finals. This was the third time in a row Bafana had reached the final four of Africa’s showpiece.

However, an old foe Nigeria were too good and beat Bafana 2-0 in the final. The 3rd/4th play-off saw South African come out on top in a dramatic penalty shoot-out against Tunisia after the sides finished 2-2.

2002 - Quarter-Final (Carlos Quieroz)

At AFCON 2002 hosted in Mali, South Africa navigated their way to the knockout stages in the top spot in a group boasting Ghana, Morocco and Burkina Faso.

South Africa managed to eke out consecutive goalless draws against Ghana and Burkina Faso. A 3-point result was imperative heading into their final match against Morocco. Incredibly, Bafana did just that thanks to goals from Sibusiso Zuma, Thabo Mngomeni and Siyabonga Nomvete. 

In the quarters, Bafana faced an awkward clash against the hosts. Unfortunately, Mali scored two second-half goals which sent South Africa crashing out at the quarter-final stage for the first time in their history. 

2004 - Group Stage (April Phumo)

Perhaps the beginning of a new era of South African football, and definitely not a good one. For the first time, Bafana were dumped out in the group stages of AFCON held in Tunisia.  In fairness to the class of 2004, they had to contend with a tough group which included Nigeria, Morocco and Benin.

The opening match gave a reason for optimism as Siyabonga Nomvethe was the talisman in their 2-0 victory over Benin. However, that optimism was eviscerated when Nigeria clobbered South Africa 4-0 in a dominant display. Only a win against Morocco in their final game could salvage Bafana’s tournament but a 1-1 was all they got against the eventual runners-up. 

2006 - Group Stage (Ted Dumitru)

An embarrassing tournament for Bafana Bafana as they were rightly knocked out of the AFCON 2006 in Egypt without a winning a match or even scoring a goal.

In a group with Zambia, Tunisia and Guinea, Bafana would have fancied their chances of progressing. However, a 2-0 loss in their opener against Guinea set the poor tone for the competition.

Another 2-0 loss at the hands of Tunisia signalled the end of their tournament. Instead of a consolation win, they fell 1-0 to Zambia. It was an AFCON to forget for the national side.

2008 - Group Stage (Carlos Alberto Parreira)

At AFCON 2008 in Ghana, Bafana Bafana stuttered and stumbled to again not make it out of the group stage. Drawn into a competitive group with Angola, Tunisia and Senegal – South Africa had to settle for the wooden spoon.

In the opening game versus Angola, Elrio van Heerden scored a very late equaliser. Bafana did not carry that momentum into their next match. Tunisia were way too strong and beat them 3-1. A victory was the only option against Senegal to give South Africa any chance of qualification to the knockout stage. Unfortunately, they could only muster a 1-1 draw.

The 2008 AFCON was one of the last occasions South Africa would qualify for the continental showpiece until qualifying as the host nation fie years later.

2010 - Did Not Qualify (Joel Santana)

Bafana Bafana’s high profile coach Carlos Alberto Parreira resigned abruptly, citing health reasons. Fellow Brazilian Joel Santana, a surprising and unknown candidate, stepped in just before a crucial run of AFCON qualifiers.

Santana, shoehorned into an unknown environment, had minimal preparation time with his new squad for these key matches. Eventually, South Africa failed to qualify for AFCON 2010 in Angola in a group containing Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

2012 - Did Not Qualify (Pitso Mosimane)

Unfortunately, this failed campaign will always be remembered for the Bafana Bafana players who were shown doing a celebratory dance after a 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone.

The players thought they had booked their AFCON 2012 ticket because of their superior goal difference. With egg on their face, Bafana soon found out a few minutes later that they hadn’t qualified.

This because nobody had bothered to read the fine print in the rule book. CAF rules stated that Bafana’s superior goal difference counted for nothing but instead it came down to which country had a better head-to-head record. Unfortunately for South Africa, Niger progressed.

2013 - Quarter Final (Gordon Igesund)

South Africa was back in AFCON after a 5-year hiatus as hosts in 2013. Impressively, Bafana topped their group which included surprise packages Cape Verde, Angola and Morocco.

After a glum goalless draw against Cape Verde in their opener, South Africa followed that up with an important three points against Angola. Goals from Siyabonga Sangweni and Lehlohonolo Majoro secured a crucial win. In their final match of the group stage, South Africa came back twice to hold Morocco to a 2-2 draw.

Unfortunately, the hosts failed to get past Mali in the quarterfinals in Durban, losing 3-1 on penalties.

South Africa was back in AFCON after a 5-year hiatus as hosts in 2013. Impressively, Bafana topped their group which included surprise packages Cape Verde, Angola and Morocco.

After a glum goalless draw against Cape Verde in their opener, South Africa followed that up with an important three points against Angola. Goals from Siyabonga Sangweni and Lehlohonolo Majoro secured a crucial win. In their final match of the group stage, South Africa came back twice to hold Morocco to a 2-2 draw.

Unfortunately, the hosts failed to get past Mali in the quarterfinals in Durban, losing 3-1 on penalties.

2015 - Group Stage (Shakes Mashaba)

Yet another tough group for Bafana who had to battle Algeria, Senegal and Ghana for the two knockout available places. It was a tournament of ‘what-ifs’ for South Africa who looked like a seriously good team at stages. They took the lead in every match they played but ultimately crumbled under pressure.

In their opener, Thuso Phala gave Bafana a lead in the second half but in the end, Algeria ran out 3-1 winners. Next up was Senegal, again they struck first through Oupa Manyisa but they gave up their important lead eventually drawing 1-1.

In their final match, Mandla Masango scored a superb volley early in the match but the Ghanaians quality shone through in the end to win 2-1.

2017 - Did Not Qualify (Shakes Mashaba)

Grouped with relative minors such as Gambia and Mauritania, Bafana would have been confident of qualifying for AFCON 2017, hosted in Gabon. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned in another sobering qualification campaign.

Bafana picked up a solitary point from two matches. First, they were held to a goalless draw at home by Gambia. Then came a shocking 3-1 defeat to Mauritania

Two consecutive draws followed against Cameroon. The damage was done and despite a 4-0 hammering of Gambia in their penultimate match, Bafana had to settle for watching AFCON from their couch instead of being in Gabon.

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