It has been 20 years since the South African national football team won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament was hosted by South Africa and the win brought the country together, and especially after the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup the year before, it was a great period for South African sport. Bafana Bafana beat Tunisia 2-0 in the final and lifted the trophy at the FNB Stadium on this very day two decades ago.
The two goals in the final were scored by Mark Williams who came on as a substitute and scored in the 73rd and 75th minute. The country’s late former President Nelson Mandela was in attendance and handed the trophy to captain Neil Tovey as the whole nation watched Bafana Bafana achieve this magnificent honour. The Cup of Nations victory is viewed as a sign of democracy as the country came together to celebrate history. It was just two years post-apartheid and the different races that celebrated showed that the country was coming together as one.
The victory meant a lot to all South Africans and the whole squad, and the man who scored the two winning goals, Mark Williams remembers it as a special day. The nation had so much hope for Bafana Bafana, especially after they impressively beat the favourites Ghana 3-0 in the semi-final of the competition. Leading up to the final match Williams was dropped to the bench, much to many people’s confusion, including his own.
Williams says when the final was nearing, he was quite upset that he wasn’t starting the match: ‘I was not disappointed but I was just upset. It could have actually been a tactic. I have a stronger personality and when I was subbed in, I scored the a goal within two minutes of being put on and within 100 metres I could see tears in Madiba’s eyes when the first goal went in. I had so much joy.’ Bafana Bafana was not a team that was expected to make it all the way to the final. According to some their group stage performance was not all that impressive but the team ignored all the negative critics and continued to play to their strengths.
The feeling that the squad had throughout the competition and in the final was that they could do anything if they put their mind to it and believed in themselves. Williams says the feeling within the squad leading up to the final was that they could actually win the competition: ‘When we won the semi-final, that was when we realised we could do this, and we can score. We can win the final and the home crowd was with us.’
The whole of South Africa was supportive during the Cup of Nations, not only spectators but other national teams, especially from the Springboks. Williams recalls: ‘The rugby guys were so supportive, they even came to the stadium to watch us and we just told ourselves that if they could win a trophy then so could we.’
When they won the trophy he says that it felt like a dream, and he only woke up five days later and he realised they actually had won the cup: ‘It was a good time not only for us but the whole country.’ It has been a while since the South African national football team has won a trophy or had a good run in a competition and Williams says that he looks at today’s squad and just wonders if they will ever know the feeling of winning the Cup of Nations or any other major trophy: ‘We can only hope that one day, Bafana Bafana will once again bring us the joy that they brought the nation in 1996.’
Photo credit: Nick Lourens