Tuesday, June 18, 2024

South Africa vs. Nigeria: Who are Bafana Bafana as AFCON 2023 semifinalists take aim at favorites? – CBS Sports


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Wednesday’s first Africa Cup of Nations semifinal sees South Africa take on Nigeria in Bouake for a place in Sunday’s final against either host nation Ivory Coast or DR Congo. This edition has already been memorable with defending champions Senegal and favorites Morocco among those to have fallen early in a tournament filled with thrills and spills. Hugo Broos’ South African side are arguably the biggest remaining underdogs left in contention with the Super Eagles strong favorites ahead of this midweek matchup. Who are Bafana Bafana, then, and how have they managed to come this far in what has been a wildly unpredictable and exciting AFCON to date?

The South African story of this AFCON edition started in far from ideal circumstances with a 2-0 defeat to Mali in Group E. However, in the four games since that opening loss, Broos’ side have not conceded a goal over 90 minutes nor in extra time. That setback against the Malians was offset with a 4-0 thrashing of Namibia and a goalless draw with Tunisia which saw the Eagles of Carthage eliminated as Bafana Bafana finished second to earn a round of 16 matchup with 2022 FIFA World Cup success story Morocco. 
South Africa’s 2-0 win over the Atlas Lions was arguably the biggest shock of this tournament so far which sent shockwaves through African and world soccer. A goalless draw against Cape Verde followed but that was not without its drama as captain and goalkeeper Ronwen Williams earned hero status by saving four of the Blue Sharks’ spot kicks in a 2-1 shootout success. 
Nigeria is the next challenge for this South African side but four games without conceding and a semifinal berth is already an impressive showing from Broos’ men who will be under no pressure compared with Nigeria.
South Africa’s progress this edition is somewhat deceptive as the nation boasts major pedigree historically yet this is considered a largely underdog current team because Broos has opted for largely Africa-based players. 
Bafana Bafana have been to the semis three times before this fourth outing with a 1996 victory, a 1998 final defeat and a 2000 semifinal and eventual third place to look back on. That said, a run all the way to at least the final would be an incredible achievement for this squad and Broos himself — more on him shortly.
Ronwen Williams’ heroics have already been noted after he saved four penalties against Cape Verde but the Mamelodi Sundowns’ man is also captain and one of the most experienced senior figures. No goals conceded over games since the opener owes as much to a tight defense as it does Williams and that is where Bafana Bafana’s team ethic comes in. Fellow veteran Sundowns teammate Themba Zwane has two goals and one assist to his name to lead the charts statistically but there is no one prolific figure in terms of wider tournament statistics and truly individual performances. Belgian tactician Broos deserves much credit and for good reason — this is not his first AFCON rodeo and far from it. He was Cameroon boss when the Indomitable Lions triumphed in 2017 title and he returned to African soccer after his last Oostende posting in his homeland back in 2019.
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Broos’ current group boasts few Europe-based players with Percy Tau of Al Ahly in Egypt, Sphephelo Sithole of Tondela in Portugal and Mihlali Mayambela of Aris Limassol in Cyprus the notable exceptions. Otherwise, all of these players are South Africa-based with 10 from Mamelodi Sundowns out of a 23-man squad. The 13-time South African champions with six straight titles have provided both Williams and Zwane who are key figures and bring significant experience beyond their obvious on-field contributions. 
Europeans like Lyle Foster of Burnley and Lebo Mothiba of RC Strasbourg Alsace as well as Major League Soccer’s Bongokhule Hlongwane of Minnesota United all have more than 10 caps to their names yet are not in the Ivory Coast despite being called up over the past 12 months. Few can argue that Broos has made an error in judgment given how this current outing is going and it could get even better if the South Africans can edge out Nigeria.
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