Coach Hugo Broos is rebuilding the Bafana Bafana squad’s fighting spirit

coach hugo broos is rebuilding the bafana bafana squad’s fighting spirit

Coach Hugo Broos is rebuilding the Bafana Bafana squad’s fighting spirit

The current generation of Bafana Bafana players lags behind the teams that represented the country at various major tournaments soon after systematic racial discrimination was disbanded as a governing system in South Africa.

However, of all the Bafana Bafana squads that have been assembled since the team’s golden years – in terms of mentality – the current crop of players in the South African senior men’s side is not trailing too far behind the 1996 African champions.

In 1996, four years after apartheid was abolished, Bafana Bafana clinched the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) as tournament hosts. Two years later they finished second after being defeated by Egypt.

Then, during the 2000 edition, co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria, they clinched bronze ahead of Tunisia. It was a perfect return to international soccer for South Africa after their apartheid-enforced exile.

While it was making these strides in continental soccer, the team – which boasted the likes of Lucas Radebe, Neil Tovey and a young Benni McCarthy – was also ensuring that the international sphere was conscious of its return from the wilderness. Bafana Bafana qualified for back-to-back Fifa World Cups in 1998 and 2002.

On both occasions they were eliminated in the group stage of the global showpiece. This was an indication of Bafana Bafana’s inexperience on the global stage, despite their rapid reintegration on the African front. Regardless, there was hope that the team would maintain its positive trajectory.

Downward spiral

However, since those years it has been a downward plunge for the South African national team. The only up came when the country hosted the 2010 World Cup, where Bafana Bafana were present as tournament hosts. Once again, though, they failed to make it past the group stage.

After they successfully hosted the World Cup, there was renewed enthusiasm among South African soccer followers that their men’s team would reignite the magic of the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

To the disappointment of the masses, their team continued plummeting towards the abyss of irrelevance. Despite the efforts of acclaimed coaches such as Pitso Mosimane and Gordon Igesund, nothing could halt the team’s downward spiral.

Before the arrival of Hugo Broos in May 2021, Bafana Bafana weren’t successful in qualifying for Afcon in 2010, 2012, 2017 and 2021. On the occasions that they did, such as in 2015 and 2019, the best they managed was a quarterfinal finish.

When the team failed to qualify for Afcon under Molefi Ntseki in 2021, elderly Belgian Broos was appointed by the South African Football Association (Safa) and tasked with altering the team’s fortunes.

His mandate: to qualify Bafana Bafana for the 2023 Afcon in Ivory Coast. From there, to qualify the team for the 2026 World Cup, in what would be their first appearance since 2010.

The decree might have seemed trivial and simple. However, with South Africa’s history of failing to qualify for major tournaments in the decade preceding the arrival of Broos, it was always poised to be a massive challenge for the coach. This despite his pedigree, which included him winning the 2017 Afcon with Cameroon.

Stocktaking

Three years after accepting the challenge in the twilight of his coaching career, Broos has built a team that is not quite the All Blacks, Springboks, Real Madrid or Mamelodi Sundowns in terms of its mentality, but that is definitely heading in a similar direction to the examples highlighted.

The perfect anecdote for this altered mindset, other than the team clinching bronze at the 2023 Afcon, comes from Bafana Bafana’s recent round of World Cup qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by Canada, the US and Mexico.

Bafana Bafana played against Nigeria and Zimbabwe as part of their third and fourth of 10 qualification battles in Group C.

The South Africans had won one and lost the other during the opening pair matches of their campaign, leaving them on three points. As such, they were aware that another defeat in this round of fixtures would be a major setback, despite the journey to reach North America remaining a lengthy one.

Safa tried to play its part by acquiring a charter plane that would aid Bafana Bafana’s travel to Nigeria. The two Afcon 2023 semifinalists were poised to clash in Uyo, with each knowing that defeat would hurt their qualification hopes.

Somehow Bafana Bafana’s flight was delayed by well over two hours from the scheduled departure time of 9am on Wednesday, 5 June. They were scheduled to arrive at their final destination at about 5pm on the same day.

However, the lengthy delay meant that by the time they arrived at Port Harcourt International Airport and cleared customs there, the Victor Attah International Airport in Uyo had closed for the day, forcing the team to find accommodation in Port Harcourt and eating into their preparation time.

If they had experienced such tribulation two years ago, Bafana Bafana might have crumbled and collapsed. Nevertheless, despite having only a few hours to test out the match venue in Uyo upon their eventual arrival on Thursday morning, Bafana Bafana fought courageously to match the Super Eagles and earn a crucial 1-1 draw.

Before his team’s 3-1 win over Zimbabwe in their most recent World Cup qualification match on 11 June, Broos laid out his players’ struggles during their trip to Nigeria.

Proud coach

“Take-off was scheduled for 9am [on Wednesday]. Then we received a message that our flight was delayed, initially for one and a half hours. After that, we got another message that the flight was delayed until 12.30pm,” Broos stated.

“That means that we were already four hours behind. And then we had to refuel in Rwanda… We arrived in Nigeria after a five-hour delay. That delay then had consequences.

“We couldn’t fly any more from Port Harcourt Airport to Uyo. We had to then arrange a bus and hotel. We made it to our beds at 2am [on Thursday].

“What makes me proud and happy is that the mentality of our team is fantastic,” Broos added. “Two or three years ago [under similar circumstances] we would have never had a performance like we did [against Nigeria].”

Under Broos, Bafana Bafana may not always play the style of entertaining soccer that a number of South Africans identify with and adore.

Nonetheless, the team is gradually relearning how to grind out the required results, no matter the circumstances they encounter. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

You may write a letter to the DM168 editor at [email protected] sharing your views on this story. Letters will be curated, edited and considered for publication in our weekly newspaper on our readers' views page.

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