SOUTH Africa make their second entry into the country since Ghana co-hosted the 2000 edition of the Africa Nations Cup with neighbours Nigeria to redefine themselves as one of the forces of the continent’s soccer powerhouse.
The Bafana Bafana, as the South Africa senior national team are affectionately called, are undergoing a transition and, understandably, struggling to replicate the form that won them their first Nations Cup trophy in 1996.
The architects of the 1996 historic victory, which still remains their major silverware in the championship, included Lucas Radebe, Dr Kumalo, John “Shoes” Moshoe and Phil Masinga. But members of that fearsome squad, the first to feature for Bafana since its re-adoption into the continental football family in 1995, have all fizzled out.
Indeed, the last batch of that group, plus a few new ones such as Siyabonga Nomvete, terrorised the Black Stars during the quarter-finals of the 2000 tournament at the then Kumasi Sports Stadium to eliminate Ghana from the competition. But, after that feat, the team have been facing challenges to find replacements.
As one of the solutions, against the backdrop that South Africa will be hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, they have gone in for a Brazilian trainer, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to help reverse the trend.
The Rainbow Nation, as it is popularly called, is not new to African football. Indeed, it was part of the founding fathers of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), but it was suspended because it was unable to raise a unified team, involving both black and white players for tournaments.
And when South Africa was re-admitted into the “family” in 1995, at the end of apartheid, premier club side, Olando Pirates, celebrated it by winning the CAF Champions League that same year, to be followed by Bafana Bafana’s historic feat a year later.
Two years later, in Burkina Faso, the South Africans were not second time lucky as they lost 0-2 to Egypt in the finals and were third two years later. Unfortunately, the story has not been too pleasant at their last six tournaments where they were kicked out at the quarter-final stage in 2002 and went out in the first round in 2004. And that poor showing was again repeated at the 2006 tournament in Egypt where they failed to score a single goal.
Parreira, no doubt, is looking to Ghana 2008 to end the downward trend to give some hope to the teeming South African fans.
Paired with Angola, Senegal and Tunisia in Group D, to be based in Tamale, they are aware that a slip could kill that resurgent spirit.
Indeed, as per the books, Senegal should be the easy group winner, while Bafana Bafana and Tunisia struggle for the second spot from the pool for the next stage. In the last three meetings between South Africa and Senegal, Senegal have won twice, while the former have won just once.
Tunisia and South Africa have both won two times apiece, one going by way of a draw, but Angola have never beaten the South Africans in their last five meetings. Bafana have won three, drawing two.
The Rainbow Nation has played a total of 28 matches at the Nations Cup, won 13, drawn seven, lost eight, has scored 34 goals and conceded 27.
With the kind of financial commitment the Rainbow Nation is making towards the rebuilding of the team, including paying Parreira a monthly salary of $250,000, the team is not giving anything to chance.
Qualifying from Group 11 ahead of Zambia, Congo Brazzaville and Chad, South Africa may just be in the right stead for the tournament.
In spite of putting his hopes on a youthful side, Parreira is expected to assemble his best old guards, including Nomvete, Steven Pienaar and Sibusiso Zuma, who will captain the team to Ghana.
Zuma is delivering on his potential and is in the best form of his career as he looks forward to playing in a fourth successive tournament.
The player, who captained the team to the Egypt Nations Cup in 2006 and who plays for Armenia Bielefeld, has been hit by injuries severally, but thank God he is fit and has scored some crucial goals for Bafana Bafana.
He joined Bielefeld from Danish side FC Copenhagen in July 2005 and won his first cap in 1998.
Unfortunately, though, the team will be without the goal king of the 1998 tournament in Burkina Faso, Benny McCarthy, who seems to have fallen out of favour with Parreira. The absence of the Blackburn player will certainly take a big toll on the attacking machinery of the South African team, but Coach Parreira believes Bafana Bafana is bigger than any individual player.