Will South Africa sneak home at Cup of Nations?

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Ivory Coast are favourites but the hosts are desperate to add a second Cup of Nations that can unite a country

Johannesburg

On 3 February 1996, for the second time in a little over six months, Nelson Mandela handed over a major sporting trophy to a white South African wearing a captain's armband. Thanks to widespread media interest and the Hollywood film Invictus, the world knows the symbolism of Francois Pienaar collecting the rugby World Cup; far less well known, and yet of rather greater importance to the majority of South Africans, is the story of Bafana Bafana winning the Cup of Nations.

Once again, the nation came together as South Africa approached the final, but this time it was in the game of the majority. More than that, the football team was truly mixed race, in ethnic make-up at least far more representative of the rainbow nation than the rugby team had been. The white midfielder Eric Tinkler, his name incorporated into a Zulu war chant sung from the terraces, even briefly gained the nickname "Mandela" because he was seen as such a leader. The captain, Neil Tovey, meanwhile, was so noted for his diplomatic handling of questions about race that he took a nickname from the Council for a Democratic South Africa, "Codesa".

A late winner from John "Shoes" Moshoeu just a minute after an Algerian equaliser sent South Africa through to the semi-final. There, Shoes scored either side of a Shaun Bartlett goal as the favourites Ghana were dismantled 3-0. Two goals from Mark Williams settled the final against Tunisia in front of 80,000 in Soccer City. Mandela again wore a South Africa shirt, again shed tears of joy. It seemed then that South Africa, having won the first Cup of Nations in which it had competed, could go on to dominate football on the continent.

And, of course, there was broader significance. The Economist was in no doubt about the importance of that final. "Forget rugby," a report of 10 February read. "South Africa's triumph over the world in that game last year may have rescued the pride of five million whites, but for 31 million blacks nothing matched the jubilation on February 3… Yet not only blacks: a nation in the making rejoiced with them. Nelson Mandela has used sport to define South Africans' sense of themselves, as he struggles to pull umpteen tongues, groups and faiths into one. Rugby almost did it: blacks, surprised at themselves, swung behind that Afrikaner secular religion. Victory over England at cricket, with a lone non-white player, helped. But it is the soccer victory that has truly spanned the ethnic divide."

As so often, dreams of unity and an emerging utopia proved illusory.

More surprisingly, so too did the expectation that South Africa, with its relative financial might, would go on to dominate the game on the continent. Although they qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and 2002, they failed to make it out of the group on either occasion. In the Cup of Nations, meanwhile, they suffered a steady decline: losing finalists in 1998, losing semi-finalists in 2000, losing quarter-finalists in 2002, third in their group in 2004, bottom of the group in 2006 and 2008, failed to qualify in 2010 and 2012. Given a decent showing at the World Cup, when they drew with Mexico and beat France, it was that latter failure, suffered after playing out a draw against Sierra Leone having failed to work out the head-to-head qualifying rules, that really hurt.

Taking on hosting duties from Libya – much as they replaced Kenya as hosts in 1996 – represents a golden and slightly fortuitous opportunity. In 1996, the perception was that Kenya had been muscled aside because there was a desire among the African ruling body CAF and Fifa to showcase South Africa as a potential World Cup venue; this time South Africa has been able to step in precisely because it did end up hosting the World Cup – albeit later than many had hoped.

Then South Africa and South African football were new and full of promise. Now a level of cynicism has set in and the present crop of players are clearly tiring of hearing about the glories of '96. "The cup-winning side of 1996 have been mentioned over and over again, and it was a great moment for South African football," said Bongani Khumalo, who is on loan at PAOK from Tottenham and succeeded Everton's Steven Pienaar as captain when he retired from international football. "But now, as hosts for 2013, it's important that we create new memories. It was a great part of our history, but as players we need to create our own memories."

Home advantage brings pressure but in Africa it really is an advantage. Of the 28 previous Cups of Nations, 11 have been won by the hosts. That proportion (39 per cent), while higher than for World Cups (32 per cent) and European Championships (21 per cent), is lower than for Copas America (51 per cent) and Asian Cups (40 per cent), but more significant is the recent trend. As travel has generally become easier and stadiums have become more homogenised, home advantage has declined – apart from in Africa.

Since 1990, 17 per cent of World Cups, 25 per cent of Copas America, 17 per cent of Asian Cups and no European Championships have been won by hosts, while 44 per cent of Cups of Nations have, despite CAF's policy of taking the tournament away from the traditional heartlands to places such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Angola and Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. South Africa, having hosted the World Cup so recently, is the African nation that offers facilities closest to the generic environment that top players are used to but still, with limited numbers of travelling fans, playing at home is a significant benefit.

By appointing Gordon Igesund, a hugely successful if itinerant coach, the South African Football Association has made a bold and not universally popular choice. Igesund is the only manager to have won the South African Premier League with four different clubs but he has at times been criticised for the pragmatism of his approach.

There have been encouraging signs, most notably in a 1-0 defeat against Brazil in Sao Paulo last September, but last Tuesday's 1-0 friendly defeat to Norway exhibited familiar failings. South Africa look good on the ball, and dominated possession, but they lack penetration. It was a similar story in losing to Zambia in November. Igesund made predictable noises about seeing "a big improvement" and "seeing the big picture" but he admitted his side "kept going sideways".

Khumalo admitted Bafana had been too cautious. "We played a good brand of football," he said, "but maybe at times we should get more ugly in the box and gamble. But these are the things we will work on." Still, it's not the worst fault to have: controlling the ball is the first step to controlling the match and, with a relatively simple group and home support, it may be that, as confidence flows, so there comes a cutting edge.

Ivory Coast are obvious favourites but after the Elephants it's an open field. This is a limited South Africa that is still developing but, with home support and the desire both to honour Thomas Madigage, the popular assistant coach who was killed in a car crash in October, and provide perhaps one final moment of sporting glory for the ailing Mandela, a repeat of 1996 is not impossible.

THE GROUPS

Group A

Tom, 4pm South Africa v Cape Verde, Jo'burg ITV4

Tom, 7pm Angola v Morocco, Jo'burg ES

Wed, 3pm South Africa v Angola, Durban ES

Wed, 6pm Morocco v Cape Verde, Durban ITV4

27 Jan, 5pm Morocco v South Africa, Durban ES

27 Jan, 5pm Cape Verde v Angola, Port E'th ES2

Odds on winning Cup 8-1 South Africa, 14-1 Morocco, 33-1 Angola, 66-1 Cape Verde. (ES= Eurosport)

Group B

Sat, 3pm Ghana v Congo, Port Elizabeth ES

Sat, 6pm Mali v Niger, Port Elizabeth ITV4

Thu, 3pm Ghana v Mali, Port Elizabeth ES

Thu, 6pm Niger v Congo, Port Elizabeth ITV4

28 Jan, 5pm Congo v Mali, Durban ES2

28 Jan, 5pm Niger v Ghana, Port Elizabeth ES

Odds on winning Cup 5-1 Ghana, 14-1 Mali, 50-1 Congo, 150-1 Niger.

Group C

Mon, 3pm Zambia v Ethiopia, Nelspruit ES

Mon, 6pm Nigeria v Burk. Faso, Nelspruit ITV4

Fri, 3pm Zambia v Nigeria, Nelspruit ES

Fri, 6pm B Faso v Ethiopia, Nelspruit ITV4

29 Jan, 5pm B Faso v Zambia, Nelspruit ES

29 Jan, 5pm Ethiopia v Nigeria, Rustenburg ES

Odds on winning Cup 9-1 Nigeria, 12-1 Zambia, 50-1 Burkina Faso, 200-1 Ethiopia.

Group D

Tues, 3pm Ivory Coast v Togo, Rustenburg ES2

Tues, 6pm Tunisia v Algeria, Rustenburg ITV4

26 Jan, 3pm Ivory Coast v Tunisia, Rustenburg ES2

26 Jan, 6pm Algeria v Togo, Rustenburg ITV4

30 Jan, 5pm Algeria v Ivory Coast, Rustenburg ES2

30 Jan, 5pm Togo v Tunisia Nelspruit, ES2

Odds on winning Cup 7-4 Ivory Coast, 14-1 Algeria, 16-1 Tunisia, 66-1 Togo.

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