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Underdogs shoot lights out at Africa Cup of Nations

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At the time of going to press, Bafana Bafana had reached the semi-finals of the 2024 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Ivory Coast, and the team has been followed every step of the way by South African mentalist and sports commentator, Michael Abrahamson.

Bafana Bafana take on three-time champions Nigeria in the semi-finals on 7 February following their penalty shootout win against Cape Verde in the quarter-finals.

Abrahamson, a commentator on the tournament for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, says the fact Bafana Bafana went into the tournament without massive expectation stood them in good stead. He cites the team being drawn in a tough group consisting of Mali, Namibia, and 2004 champions Tunisia.

“Once they got out of the group, they had to play against Morocco [the semi-finalist at the 2022 FIFA World Cup]. Everybody was tipping Morocco to win quite comfortably, so it was like a free hit for Bafana Bafana. They turned in an incredible defensive performance. Morocco had only two shots on goal in the entire match,” he says.

Abrahamson and others in the football fraternity say another secret to Bafana Bafana’s success is the fact that eight of their starting line-up, which has been the same in the past four matches, play for Mamelodi Sundowns, the winner of the past six top-tier league titles in South Africa.

Abrahamson says this year’s AFCON has more than lived up to its expectations, with upsets by the underdogs and the high quality of football standing out for him.

Having commentated on AFCONs since the 1990s, Abrahamson says the edition in South Africa in 1996 was incredibly special. “It was South Africa’s first appearance in the tournament, first hosting of the tournament, and they won it.

“This year’s edition has been as good as any previously. The main reason for that is the way the referees have refereed the game. They’ve used the VAR system correctly for the most part, and their officiating has been excellent compared to what we see elsewhere in the world. On my radio show on SAfm, I get a lot of high-class former referees from around the world, and all of them have said that the standard of refereeing has been brilliant.

“What’s also good is the small nations who’ve done very well, nations that aren’t big footballing names like Mauritania, for example.” They beat an Algeria team ranked 75 places above them on the FIFA rankings at the beginning of February.

“Then you have Cape Verde, who had a brilliant tournament. Angola was one of the lowest-ranked teams who made it through to the next round. They have also been brilliant so far.

“Most of the big names are out – such as Egypt, who won the title seven times before; Cameroon, who won the title five times before; and defending champion Senegal. Plus Ghana, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. We’ve lost all these big names and some of the smaller names have survived, which makes the tournament interesting because anyone can beat anyone.”

Bafana Bafana’s quarter-final against Cape Verde ended goalless after extra time, sending the match into penalties. Six out of nine penalties were missed as Bafana Bafana won the shootout 2-1. “Let’s say six hours ago I was 71, now I’m 75,” Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos quipped after the match.

“Bafana Bafana’s game against Cape Verde was a tight, tactical game between two nations very close together on the world rankings even though South Africa have a much bigger population,” Abrahamson says.

“For periods in the first and second half, South Africa moved the ball quickly and looked good. The key chance happened just before the end of 90 minutes – Ronwen Williams’ brilliant save. When the Cape Verde striker was one-on-one with him and fired in a shot that looked as if it was going to be a goal that would eliminate South Africa, Williams somehow got a hand on it and pushed it onto the post.

“Williams went on to become the first goalkeeper to save four penalties in a shootout in an AFCON match, and he almost saved the fifth as well. Some of South Africa’s penalties weren’t great, but Mothobi Mvala took the fourth penalty excellently because there was pressure building.”

Abrahamson says Bafana Bafana are looking for revenge against Nigeria. “In the 2019 tournament, Nigeria beat South Africa and knocked them out of the tournament. Ironically, Bafana Bafana’s last appearance in the AFCON semi-final ended in a 2-0 loss against the same opponents. Nigeria are a very strong team. They’ve done well through this tournament, although they only just beat Angola by one goal to nil in a tight match.

“I’m just worried about fatigue levels because South Africa have one day fewer to prepare for the match than Nigeria did. South Africa will certainly go into this match as underdogs, but they proved that they are playing fantastically defensively.”

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