South Africans have a mixed relationship with their national football team, as they are supported with pride and passion, but have disappointed local fans on many occasions by failing to qualify for tournaments such as the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations (AFCON).
Despite the many disappointments, the country’s fans continue to expect better from their heroes in green and gold, in the hopes that a sports mad nation can add football to their sporting powers alongside cricket and rugby.
At a mediocre FIFA Ranking of 75 in November 2015, the national team has a great deal of room to grow and improve ahead of the 2017 AFCON and the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which they are aiming to qualify for.
Here are 15 things you didn’t know about South Africa’s national football team, Bafana Bafana.
This is an updated version of a slideshow that was originally published Oct. 28, 2014. Peter Pedroncelli contributed to this report.
Former Porto, Ajax, Celta Vigo and Blackburn Rovers striker Benni McCarthy remains the national team’s all time leading goal scorer thanks to the 32 goals he had to his name before retiring from international football. He represented Bafana from 1997 until 2012, amassing 80 caps during that time and scoring a number of excellent goals amongst the 32.
In August 1996 the South African national team reached their highest ever placing in the FIFA rankings, with an impressive 16th place amongst the nations of the world. This followed an excellent period for Bafana, in which they won the African Cup of Nations tournament at home and continued to boost their profile in world football.
Former Bafana Bafana captain Aaron Mokoena enjoys the achievement of having appeared for the national team in matches more than any other individual, registering 107 caps for the South Africans. As a versatile player, he was able to fill a central defensive role or a midfield berth, depending on the need, leading by example as a respected captain.
The national team is able to look back with pride on one particular tournament in 1996, when a strong and determined Bafana squad managed to become champions of Africa by defeating Tunisia 2-0 in the final at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela was present on the day, and wore a Bafana shirt in celebration of their victory when handing the trophy to captain Neil Tovey.
Many would say that the national team has been struggling of late, with inconsistent performances and struggles in qualifying for the next AFCON which is set to take place in Gabon at the start of 2017, but despite this, a November 2015 ranking of 75 is not the worst place that Bafana have earned on the FIFA rankings. In 1992 shortly after the country’s readmission to sport the year before, Bafana was ranked 124th in the world.
“Bafana Bafana” was the nickname given to the South African national team by its fans. The Zulu phrase translates literally to, “the boys, the boys,” but has been taken to mean, “Go boys! Go boys!” The phrase has also been taken to mean “all of the boys,” incorporating the South African concept of ubuntu, or togetherness. The name took hold in July 1992 during a matchup between South Africa and Cameroon, when fans began chanting during and after the game. Three journalists for the South African newspaper The Sowetan began using it in print as an informal name, and the name was eventually trademarked in 1994.
In June 2010, South Africa’s midfielder, Siphiwe Tshabalala, scored the first goal of the World Cup, sending the host country into a frenzy. It was Tshabalala’s 50th cap for South Africa, and the team went on to finish the match in a 1-1 draw against Mexico. The goal was later nominated for Goal of the Year by FIFA.
Rather than focus on one major stadium, the South African national team uses a variety of stadiums throughout the country to host its home matches. The largest venue is Soccer City in Soweto, known as FNB Stadium due to naming rights, but Pretoria’s Atteridgeville Super Stadium, Rustenburg’s Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium, Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium and the Cape Town Stadium are also commonly used, as well as several others.
Though South Africa quickly found success against African opponents, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, it did not manage to beat a European opponent until November 1999. In the Nelson Mandela Challenge against Sweden, played in the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, Bafana Bafana’s Siyabonga Nomvete scored a goal in the 87th minute to secure the victory for his country.
In 1996, Nelson Mandela attended the final round of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, in which South Africa edged out favorite Tunisia 2-1, winning the championship. The win cemented the concept of “Madiba Magic,” in which South Africa always emerged victorious whenever Mandela attended games, regardless of the sport.
Although the team beat France 2-1 in their final group stage match, they failed to progress to the next stage of the tournament, as Uruguay had no losses, and Mexico had a better point differential in Group A. South Africa had been guaranteed a spot in the tournament as the host country, but participated in the qualifying process anyway, as it doubled as qualifiers for the 2010 African Cup of Nations tournament, which it did not make – meaning that if South Africa were not the host country, it would not have been given a FIFA World Cup berth.
In 1953, South Africa was one of four African nations to attend the FIFA congress, in which it demanded representation on the FIFA executive committee. Along with Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, the countries formed the CAF in 1956, and planned the first African Cup of Nations in 1957. However, South Africa’s apartheid government prohibited racially mixed competitive sport teams, meaning they would only be allowed to send an all-black or all-white team to compete, and they were disqualified from the competition by the other members of the CAF. South Africa was formally expelled from the CAF in 1958, and would not be readmitted until 1991.
Source: “The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football” (Goldblatt)
Demonstrating his passion for Bafana Bafana, newly-elected President Mandela broke away from his official inauguration celebrations in May 1994 to watch a friendly match between South Africa and Zambia at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. South Africa went on to win the match 2-1, adding further mystique to the Mandela magic that would go on to see Bafana win often when he was in attendance.
In October 2011, South Africa’s coach, Pitso Mosimane, changed tactics in the team’s final qualifier against Sierra Leone to settle for a draw, mistakenly thinking it would be enough to qualify for the tournament. The team celebrated on the field after the match, before later finding out that they had needed to win to avoid being eliminated on a head-to-head basis between the three teams tied at the top of the table. Niger qualified for the first time, and South Africa did not make the tournament. The incident was considered extremely embarrassing for South Africa, and contributed to the decision to fire Mosimane later the next year.
South Africa’s national team had developed a reputation for running through head coaches fairly quickly, racking up 16 different coaches in its 22-year history. Clive Barker is the longest-serving and most successful coach, serving from March 1994 until December 1997, and netting the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations championship trophy. Currently, Bafana Bafana is coached by Ephraim Mashaba, who took over in June 2014 after Gordon Igesund’s contract was not renewed.