1996 was the cherry on top for sport in South Africa. Fresh from a Rugby World Cup triumph followed some six months later by Orlando Pirates landing the African Cup of Champions Clubs. Barely a month after the Buccaneers’ triumph, the senior national team had its shot at glory with the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil. It was not yet four years earlier that Bafana Bafana played their first international match – a 1-0 win over Cameroon in Durban.
The Indomitable Lions were the first team SA played back in July 1992 and the South Africans won 1-0. Perhaps there was a sense of destiny when the two were drawn together in Group A of the 96 AFCON and the hosts were off to a flyer with a fantastic 3-0 hammering of the west Africans. It was the perfect start for coach Clive Barker.
However, despite this and a 1-0 win over Angola a week later in their second group fixture, they suffered a 1-0 blow to Egypt at the FNB Stadium in their final pool game. It was was not expected, especially after their opening victories. The defeat to the Pharoahs would not count against Bafana Bafana, who would go on to top the group anyway.
Entering such a competition as an experienced team is fearful enough, but being quite new to the international arena, as well as failing to qualify for the 1994 Cup of Nations meant fans were cautiously, if perhaps blindly, optimistic. Barker says: ‘It was tough because the boys (Springboks) had just won the World Cup and so the pressure was there to deliver.’
The Egyptians had beaten the Angolans 2-1 before crashing to the Cameroonians by the same scoreline. Owing to the goal difference, the host nation was in the pound seat and perhaps this brought about some complacency. Barker says: ‘The pressure against Egypt was intense. They were a strong team, but we were able to learn from the loss, and carry on stronger.’ There was a bet between the Egyptians and South Africans that Barker would have to ride a camel if South Africa lost, which he honoured.
However, Egypt was not the biggest concern to Barker and his boys, but rather the side they faced first up. He says: ‘Cameroon was the team to beat in the tournament, which built the momentum for us to win.’ Barker’s charges went on to win the group and defeat Algeria, annihilate Ghana and secure a 2-0 win against Tunisia in the final to sensationally win the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.
Photo credit: Nick Lourens