When football healed a nation: South Africa’s 1996 AFCON win

When it comes to politics, I could be the lost person in a conversation. It is a subject many people steer clear of, but one just gets tangled into it at some point in life. So, in the middle of the year 1990 when a man named Nelson Mandela touched down in Malaysia, I did not understand what the fuss was all about back then. But I began to learn a thing or two about him and what he represents. This was my first exposure to South Africa, the one African country that holds a soft spot in many fans’ hearts. The more one learns about this country, the more contagious it gets. Everything about the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is just one big topic in itself but the one area that stands out in South Africa’s history is their finest hour in football.

The 1996 African Cup of Nation (AFCON) was the first edition to grab my attention. With no satellite television available, one had to look for other alternatives. Luckily for Malaysians, there was BBC World Service to satisfy the cravings for overseas football coverage. With a little bit of tuning on the short wave dial, one could manage to experience the events unfolding in South Africa. Otherwise, fans had to go through the painstaking wait just to discover the results in the newspaper the following day.

But before that, let us rewind to just two years earlier. Several events that took place then, intertwines with South Africa’s ambition as a new born nation. The country ended its Apartheid Era with the first non-racial General Election. Mr. Nelson Mandela was elected as the President in the new chapter. These were enthralling times for a country that had long closed itself from the rest of the world. But the year was also a watershed moment for football’s biggest tournament, the World Cup. Held in the United States of America, it was a huge success. This was eye opening for FIFA. They saw the potential of taking the tournament beyond its traditional shores of Europe and Latin America.

That same year, the late Stix Morewa, president of South Africa Football Association (SAFA) wrote a letter to FIFA. The country was keen to bid to become a World Cup host. African football was on the rise as it was challenging the customary powers. The timing could not have been better. The continent saw the best chance to host this prestigious tournament as early in 2006.

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To be seen as a credible host, South Africa needed to have some track record. In 1995, they were given the huge opportunity of hosting the Rugby World Cup. Besides being crowned as Champions, the tournament was a massive success. They unearthed their potential to manage major events. Their first impression was everlasting enough. With President Mandela being a keen advocate of using sports as a healing platform for his country, it was time to solidify that reputation.

The 1996 AFCON edition was supposed to be held in Kenya. But since Kenya were facing some challenges becoming a host, Confederation of African Football had to look for an alternatives. South Africa had all the facilities and were ever ready to step in. All that was left was for the national team known as ‘Bafana Bafana’ (‘The Boys’ in Zulu) to have a good run in it.

Since their reinstatement from international isolation, results had been less encouraging. The team was struggling to get positive results on their road trips. This had a major impact on their failure to qualify for the 1994 AFCON. Following this, SAFA had decided to appoint a local coach named Clive Barker in the hot seat. According to the book ‘Madiba’s Boys’ by Graeme Friedman, his arrival in the national set up was a breath of fresh air. The team morale was also improving.

In December 1995, former World Champions Germany touched down in Johannesburg. They were the first European side to have agreed to come down for a friendly. South Africa did pretty well for themselves. The visitor had the likes of Jürgen Klinsmann, Thomas Hässler, Andreas Möller and Andreas Köpke among others. But South Africa were unfazed by this. They held the former World Champions to a goalless draw.

Suddenly, there was a new found confidence within the Bafana Bafana set up. As hosts, sky was the limit as to just how far this team could go; especially when the team’s number one fan, Madiba, was backing them all the way. His presence during the Rugby World Cup did the trick for the Springboks. However, it all comes down to what the team does on the field. Expectation to do well on home soil was really high. Barker had to put together the best possible squad. Then again, there was no guarantee.

The bulk of the squad consisted of players from South Africa’s leading clubs: Cape Town Spurs, Mamelodi Sundowns, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. This included team captain Neil Tovey, first choice goalkeeper Andre Arendse, key defenders Mark Fish & Sizwe Motaung, midfield supremo Doctor Khumalo & Linda Buthelezi and striker Shaun Bartlett. Barker was also able to count on the services of overseas footballers. Lucas Radebe, Phil Masinga (both Leeds United), Mark Williams (Wolves), Eric Tinkler (Vitoria Setubal), John Moshoeu (Kocaelispor) and August Makalakalane (FC Zurich) had agreed to abandon their employer midway through the European season.

The surprise omission from this list was defender Steve Komphela. Even then, it was a squad that had plenty of depth. So, it wasn’t going to have a detrimental effect. Barker already had a group of tried and tested players with a strong desire and hunger at his disposal. He only needed to find the right formula to harness this group. Barker relied on a traditional 4-4-2 formation for his team. Arendse was give the nod to take the glove. In defense, a back four consisting hard running full backs in Motaung and David Nyathi plus a strong central partnership between Tovey and Fish. Buthelezi, Khumalo, Tinkler and “Shoes” Moshoeu were the midfield line up. An industrious quartet who provided enough support on both ends. Masinga and Williams were the first choice strike partnership. Radebe, Bartlett and Helman Mkhalele would usually come from the bench.

As a host, South Africa were drawn in Group A, alongside former champions Cameroon, Egypt and Angola. They were based in Johannesburg. All their group matches took place at the First National Bank Stadium, otherwise known as Soccer City. Their opening fixture was against a team that had elevated African football to new heights following their magical run in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Clive Barker and his boys knew, they had to give a good impression.

They took the lead in the 14th minute after a dummy from Fish found Masinga through to beat keeper William Andem. They doubled the lead eight minutes before half time. Williams taking advantage from a corner situation that Cameroon’s defense failed to clear. South Africa were already making a statement against the Indomitable Lions.

They concluded the game with a third goal right after the second half. Moshoeu, after receiving the ball from the Tinkler, danced his way through into the opponent’s penalty area. He played neat one two with Masinga before firing past Andem to complete Cameroon’s miserable afternoon. This game, without a question, set the tone of what was to come from Bafana Bafana.

Seven days later, they played Angola. A solitary goal from Mark Williams made the difference. It is worth nothing that Williams had turned down £2 million offer from Graham Taylor before the competition. The catch was that he had to miss the flight to South Africa and remain at Wolverhampton. The Wolves management didn’t want to risk losing games during the middle of the English football season. Though it was a fair point, what they forgot is that the opportunity to represent South Africa at a ground breaking event is too good to let go. No money could ever buy that.

With a solid start, Clive Barker’s team were growing in strength as the tournament progressed. They needed a draw against Egypt to secure top spot in their group. Unfortunately, their progress took a slight bump when a strike from Ahmed El-Kass earned a win for the Pharaohs. Luckily enough, it was not all bad for South Africa. The other match between Cameroon and Angola was a serendipitous moment for the hosts as it ended in a 3-3 draw. South Africa still were at the top of the group on goal differences.

South Africa’s opponent in the quarter finals were former winners Algeria. The match was played under a rainy afternoon in Johannesburg. A mildly drenched pitch resulted in both teams failing to compose a smooth performance. The hosts were given a huge opportunity when Tahar Chérif El-Ouazzani brought down Khumalo inside the 18 yard box. But Doctor had his attempt from the spot saved by Aomar Hamened.

Algeria were looking more dangerous in the second half but it was South Africa who broke the deadlock in the 72nd minute. A cross from Tinkler with a dummy from both Masinga and Williams, allowed Fish, who was playing the libero role, to run through and score the goal. Algeria kept piling on the pressure for an equalizer with attack after attack. South Africa were defending with their lives.

But they couldn’t keep out Tarek Lazizi from heading in, courtesy of a corner in 84th minute. Now it was level but that did not last long. In an immediate response, a powerful strike from Moshoeu restored South Africa’s lead. Algeria were not done though. The home team had to put everything on the line in the last 5 minutes. A sense of relief started was felt in the air when the final whistle was heard. South Africa were now in the semi-final.

“Every morning at 6am for breakfast, Madiba would come in and give us that extra confidence and belief. We had the president and the people behind us, it was like a dream.” -Mark Williams (via FFT)

Reaching this far was considered a massive success for a country that was still finding its place in the world. When one learns and understands the role football has played in South Africa, it becomes very clear how essential it was for Bafana Bafana to actually win the AFCON that year.

Like many aspect of life, there was a clear racial division when it came to sports during the Apartheid time. Blacks and whites weren’t allowed to play together. Each had their own leagues and organization. That was one aspect to look at. Stereo-typically, there was also that preference that goes along the racial line, especially when it involves the three major sports: football, rugby and cricket. Rugby was predominantly followed by the white Afrikaners. Cricket had a strong support from the Anglo-Saxon and Asian communities. Football was perceived as a black man’s game. The blacks may have overwhelming dislike for the Springboks. But that didn’t necessarily mean that they didn’t play rugby; and football had its own white following too.

International isolation had its effects on society, they didn’t want to be left out in the cold. It didn’t matter whether you were black or white. It didn’t matter if you loved football or rugby. South Africans on the surface loved sports. Competing on the biggest stage was something they had been craving for.

At the backdrop of this condition, football was taking the lead step. This is also mentioned in journalist Simon Kuper’s book ‘Football Against The Enemy’. There was a conservative effort taken by all communities to dismantle racial segregation. In his book, he mentioned a game between a white and black team that took place in 1973. On the football pitch at least, the cracks on Apartheid were beginning to appear.

Hence, by the late 70s and early 80s, things had started to change for the better. White players were joining black teams and vice versa. This eventually led to the formation of South Africa’s first non-racial competition, the National Soccer League (NSL) in 1985. This was five years before Apartheid was repealed and nine years before the new South Africa was born. The beautiful game had once again, echoed the voice for change.

Hypothetically, race, politics and sports are not meant to be kept in the same basket. It may have been a challenge for rugby and cricket in the new South Africa. Football, however, had bypassed the racial stigma and such an issue was an afterthought. There was no predicament in the footballing community that a white man can be the head coach and team captain in a black man’s sport. The makeup of the Bafana Bafana squad in terms of ethnicity is well represented. Black, white and coloured were all in the mix. Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the post-Apartheid South Africa as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and football is still carrying that Rainbow torch higher than ever.

The Springboks had won the Rugby World Cup on home soil and achieved crossover appeal. A rechristened cricket team had landed in England and won a Test match & One Day International series. On a personal level, it was important that football too had a part in this wave of euphoria. It would have been unfair if Bafana Bafana’s magical run came to an end before the final itself.

In the semi-final, South Africa were up against Ghana lead by Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah. Having survived Algeria, they were in for another stern test. Oddly enough, Pele didn’t start in this game. The task of neutralizing Yeboah was in the hands of Radebe. On both ends, it all clicked well for South Africa. The defense kept Ghana’s attack on silent mode. The attack did an exemplary job by putting three past the Black Stars. Two goals from Shoes Moshoeu and another from Shaun Bartlett helped South Africa to write another chapter in their history. The team that now stood in their way was Tunisia.

The day of the Final match is still etched in my memory. Speaking with other football fans, a realization sunk in that not everyone was as excited about the final game as I was. While many respected African football, it wasn’t an appetizing subject just yet, not when you have Liverpool taking on Tottenham Hotspur on television around the same time. I didn’t want to miss this occasion for anything else in the world.

Shortly before kickoff, the BBC World Service reported that Barker had made a significant lineup change. Striker Mark Williams was dropped in favour of Shaun Bartlett. Many didn’t understand Barker’s logic behind this selection considering the fact that Williams had started throughout the tournament. The Wolves striker must have been left bewildered with Barker’s decision.

The game began and there were no goals scored after 45 minutes. My limited knowledge back then didn’t gave me enough reason to understand just how outstanding this Tunisian side was. The menacing trio of Mehdi Ben Slimane, Adel Sellimi and Zoubeir Baya were the poster boys of Tunisian football in the 90s. Deep into the second half, it became clear that Barker had to reinvigorate his attacking line up. In the 65th minute, he decided to bring on Williams for Bartlett. A short while later, it was a move that paid dividends for South Africa. Tunisia failed to clear the ball from a resulting free kick from Masinga. Williams was at the right place to head the ball in to break the deadlock.

The entire crowd inside the FNB stadium was in a rapturous mode. That included Mr. Nelson Mandela who, as expected, was there to cheer his fellow countrymen from the VIP stand. There were still another 15 minutes to play, the game was far from over. South Africa needed to put this beyond Tunisia’s reach. It didn’t take long though. Just two minutes after the first goal, super-sub of the day Mark Williams was on target again. It started off with Khumalo giving a sublime pass to him after winning the ball. Williams’ shot past Chokri El Ouaer with his left foot doubled the lead. The euphoria was just a whistle away.

Our sportspeople are truly amongst the pioneers of the new South Africa, nation builders and promoters of reconciliation par excellence. Our footballers have demonstrated once more that these are not the exclusive responsibility of Government and political organisations. Sport has the power to overcome old divisions and create the bond of common aspirations. -Nelson Mandela, 1996

When the referee blew the final whistle, the image of Springboks’ victory in Ellis Park comes back to mind. There were celebration in the stands and scenes of jollification were seen on the streets of South Africa. The entire nation was collectively enjoying the dancing, cheering, shouting and jumping. Mandela’s dream of using sports as a medium for healing was working well.

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There was another important aspect to this South African team. As mentioned, the squad selected by Barker had representation of people from various ethnic backgrounds. Equally significant, is the characteristic style of football that each ethnicity brings to the team. Going back to Simon Kuper’s book, the term ‘Piano and Shoeshine’ really did catch my attention. ‘Piano and Shoeshine’ is South Africa’s equivalent to Brazil’s Ginga style. Years of isolation and without proper supervision meant that black players had develop their own way of expressing on the football pitch. These ranges from performing tricks on the ball and surprising your opponent. It had all the artful ingredients of individual skills but lacked tactical discipline.

It’s the total opposite type of football played by the white players from the suburbs and cities. They were familiar with the methodological and structural type of football but lacked the technical ability. This is the knock on effect due to the exposure to the European style of game which they are more familiar with. In a nutshell, South African football is a combination of oil and water.

This was conflicting in style and yet was a blessing for South Africa. Clive Barker succeeded at something, which his predecessor failed at. He found the perfect balance by harnessing this unique amalgamation of diversity. Such a combination is always a huge asset for a country eager to forge its own identity on the world stage. South Africa had everything to stamp its mark as a potent force in Africa.

Unfortunately, the country has become a victim of its early success. Since winning the cup in 1996, the national team has experienced a steady decline. Barker left his job in 1997 after guiding them to their first ever World Cup qualification. In the next three AFCON editions, they would finish as runners up, third place and quarter-finalists respectively. This downward trend continued to the point that they even failed to qualify for the 2010 edition of the World Cup, despite being the host nation.

Hosting the World Cup is concomitant with success on the football pitch in most cases. In South Africa’s case, it was a reverse effect. With the hosting rights, money and sponsorship came along to help develop the local game. But the best South African footballers stopped moving to Europe. They had good deal for playing at home. This resulted in a drop in performance in the years to come. The best African sides tend to be strengthened with the presence of European based players. Despite the inflow of investment, the standards of the local game didn’t rise. The country’s Premier League is one of the best in Africa but it is not at the same level as the European counterparts.

Compared with other countries in the continent, South Africa has one of the better football structures. But young players from other countries such as Nigeria or Ghana tend to move to Europe at a very young age. This only helps in making their national team more competitive. But in South Africa’s case, it is a squad that is dominated by players based locally.

The good news is that there has been a reversal of this trend in recent times. Young South Africans are moving to Europe to further their football development. The Under-23 side have qualified for the Rio Olympic Games. The Amajita side have finished fourth in the Under-20 AFCON and even qualified for the World Cup last year. The future of South African football looks bright, but there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Fans are hopeful that one day the country will have new heroes; heroes who will make history once again and open a new chapter for South Africa. Until then, we can look back at the extraordinary achievement of the Class of 1996.

*A big thanks to Velile Mbuli for sharing his extensive knowledge on South African football. This article would not have been possible without him.

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