Playing their first continental football championship following the end of anti-apartheid sanctions, the South Africans are looking for another triumph to follow the Rugby World Cup last June and the demolition of England's cricket team. President Nelson Mandela, who has become a good- luck charm for South African sports, was to meet the team yesterday evening.
For the Tunisians, who will be the underdogs before a crowd of 80,000 frenetic South African supporters in Soweto, the final is their first since losing to Ghana in 1965 and it is a chance to make up for a humiliating first-round exit when they were hosts in 1994.
"It will be a tough match as finals go, but our boys are ready," the South African coach, Clive Barker, said. "It should be close."
Controversy flared on Thursday when the head of the Tunisian side, Nasser ben Hac- ine, threatened to forfeit the match in protest over hotel problems on arrival in Johannesburg after beating Zambia 4-2 in Wednesday's semi-final.
The Tunisians apparently arrived at their hotel and were told none of the rooms were ready due to renovations. The players waited five hours in the lobby and had to cancel training. When they were checked in, the rooms stank of varnish. Ben Hacine later backed down, saying his team had not come so far in the tournament against all expectations to turn back now.
South Africa are favourites, if for no other reason than a home crowd that ranks among the loudest in sport. Tunisia's government was reportedly chartering a plane to fly in 300 fans to beef up the visitors' contingent, but they will be lost in the sell-out FNB stadium.
The South African midfielder John Moshoeu, who scored twice in the 3- 0 semi-final victory over Ghana and the Tunisian striker Abel Sellimi, who scored twice against Zambia, could be the key players.
Nigeria, the defending champions who boycotted the Cup after Mandela urged international sanctions against the country's military regime, have been banned from the 1998 and 2000 tournaments. The suspension could also lead to Nigeria's ejection from the 1998 World Cup.
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