Bafana Bafana’s triumph at the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) held the promise of a new era, one in which the sleeping giant of the continent rose to rival traditional titans Nigeria, Cameroon and the Arab nations to the north.
But two and a half decades on, it remains their only success. Bafana Bafana’s fortunes declined slowly at first, then hastened to the point where they are now barely considered outsiders for the biannual continental crown.
As FNB Stadium swayed in jubilation at the 2-0 win over Tunisia in the 1996 final and beaming president Nelson Mandela handed the trophy to captain Neil Tovey, it seemed improbable that the most coveted national team competition in Africa would elude Bafana from then on.
The story of the team’s thrilling run to the trophy under coach Clive Barker is one that has been told so often it appears to bore even those who were on the pitch that February day. “I wish we could win the trophy again, so we can stop talking about the Class of 1996,” many have said. But the fact that a repeat seems so far off now is the reason the legend grows with each passing year.
The reasons behind South Africa’s barren run are multifaceted. With Bafana’s comparable financial wealth and world-class facilities, they are like the rich kid in class who tries to get ahead on good looks and charm, but lacks the smarts to achieve. And so they remain outside the top tier of teams on the continent.
Bafana’s decline is easily plotted. After their victory in 1996, they finished runners-up two years later, then third in 2000 with a quarterfinal exit in 2002. They bombed in the group stages between 2004 and 2008, before failing to qualify in 2010 and 2012.
As hosts, they qualified in 2013 and bowed out in the quarterfinals. Bafana returned in 2015, but were well-beaten in the first round, taking a single point from a possible nine.
The team benefitted when the finals field expanded to 24 teams in 2019 and, to their credit, shocked hosts Egypt in the second round. But ultimately, they lost three of their five games and stumbled their way through the tournament.
For Tovey – who until recently was technical director for the South African Football Association (Safa), and so is perfectly placed to understand the challenges of the country’s football – it comes down to personnel.
“When that  side needed to dig deep, we were very intense in our thought and our process,” he said. “Since then, there have been some very good teams with some very good players. But I think, mentally, we were all like captains on the field.
“We all knew our responsibilities and we didn’t have to look to the [coach on the] bench. When things went a little awry on the pitch, we could take care of it and identify problems a lot quicker than teams can now. There hasn’t been that leadership on the field in the subsequent teams, to be honest. It’s as simple as that.”
From semi-pros to African champions
That on-field know-how was in part driven by a number of players having featured in top global leagues.
Defender Lucas Radebe and striker Phil Masinga were at Leeds United in England, and Eric Tinkler was in Portugal with Vitoria Setubal. The highly influential John “Shoes” Moshoeu was in the fourth year of his stay in Turkey and at Kocaelispor at the time. Doctor Khumalo was fresh from a spell in Argentina with Ferro Carril Oeste, while the two-goal hero in the final, Mark Williams, spent some time in Belgium but had moved to English side Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Those experiences improved them as players and hardened their mental resolve. They were playing in leagues that were challenging then for international players to excel in, especially Africans.
Percy Tau is a shining light for the current Bafana side, having recently realised his dream of playing in the English Premier League. He will certainly become a better player for it. But he remains one of the few South Africans currently in Europe’s top five leagues. Keagan Dolly, Lebo Mothiba and Lebogang Phiri are in France, with a smattering of others at top-flight clubs in Portugal, Sweden and Denmark.
Tinkler echoes Tovey in saying leadership is a factor, but adds that there is another major difference between the Bafana players of then and now. “In the years leading up to 1996, our domestic league was basically semi-professional. Guys had jobs in the day and then went to training in the evening. If you wanted to make it as a professional, the only chance you had was to go abroad, and that meant you had to work unbelievably hard,” says the former midfielder, now successful Premier Soccer League (PSL) coach.
“That hunger, that desire to go overseas … it is now not the same as it was for our generation. I see it. For many players it is just about the money. And they are well paid in the PSL, so where is their motivation to really push themselves to the next level in their careers? Money comes before performance these days. For us, it was the other way around. We really needed to perform to start earning anything decent from the game and to start making a living from it. That drove a lot of us.”
It sounds an easy fix. Just improve the attitude. But there is a more overarching reason for Bafana’s drop down the pecking order that is much more difficult, maybe impossible, to counter.
The extensive diaspora of many African nations creates a pipeline for players who dramatically improve their national teams. These players come through academy systems in France, the Netherlands, England and Spain, and many are playing first-team football in rigorous competitions by the time they are 18.
They get 11 years of world-class development under their belts and are finely tuned athletes with the ability and knowledge of how to succeed as a professional, making them ripe for the international stage at an early age.
Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Alex Iwobi (Nigeria), Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal), Wilfried Zaha (Ivory Coast) and Hakim Ziyech (Morocco) are a few prominent examples, but the past two decades of African football are littered with hundreds of others.
Development going backwards
These nations, particularly in North and West Africa, are benefitting from having their grassroots development done for them at an exceptional, world-class standard. Of the 23 Algeria players who won the Cup of Nations in 2019, 12 came from clubs in one of Europe’s top five leagues and another four were regulars for teams in Portugal and Turkey.
Algeria has capped 84 players born and raised in France to date, a figure that does not include players who moved there early in life and reaped the same benefits. Although there are sporadic examples emerging, South Africa will never come close to benefitting in this way.
Instead, development must be done at home, often haphazardly and almost always under-resourced.
The argument around natural talent and flair can be made, but nothing beats high quality, consistent development from a young age.
Tinkler is regarded as one of the best coaches of young talent, after spearheading the highly successful youth structures at Bidvest Wits before becoming a head coach. He says there is no doubt the country has regressed in this respect.
“We are definitely not where we should be … or could be,” he says. “We do okay until about the age of 13, we can compete on a global level until then. But where other countries start to ramp it up from there, we have not managed to do so. In fact, we start to go backwards and the growth of many players becomes stunted. I wish I could give you a good reason why, but there are probably multiple factors on and off the pitch.”
Controversial Safa president Danny Jordaan has his own theory on Bafana’s slide. He has suggested that PSL teams’ lack of focus on continental club competition, certainly for the decade from 2003 to 2013, set the country back.
Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates have bucked this trend in recent years but others have been slow to follow, weighing up the financial implication of competing over sporting benefits. “Our club teams have not concentrated on what the North Africans focus on, which is regarding the CAF Champions League as the most important competition for them,” Jordaan says.
“Our teams very often regard it as a nuisance, a disruption of their league programme, and so they participate half-heartedly. If you look at when we won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, Orlando Pirates won the Champions League [Cup] in 1995 and we went to the  World Cup with that team.
“It is battle-hardened players from the Champions League, with all the hardships the competition entails, that helps national teams and unfortunately we did not have that for a long period of time. You can only have a Bafana team compete effectively on the continent when the mainstream flow of talent into the team is from players with Champions League experience and those who come into the [senior national] side having already won considerable caps at junior level and who have also played on the continent.”
Tapping into the diaspora
Jordaan acknowledges that Bafana must find what talent they can in the European leagues. “We have many young players in Europe now and we have told [senior national team coach] Molefi Ntseki that he must go and look at those players to help build a Bafana team.”
He adds that Fifa’s investment in African football over the past 15 years has levelled the playing field in terms of helping other associations run the game more professionally and closing the gap on the leading teams. “The contribution from Fifa has made a difference. There has been a lot of investment in African football and there are no easy teams on the continent anymore.”
The likes of Madagascar, Mauritania, Burundi and Guinea-Bissau bear this out, though they have largely relied on an extensive diaspora. But Jordaan, perhaps unsurprisingly, says the future is potentially paved with gold and is hopeful the injection of young talent into the side under Ntseki will bear fruit.
“The coach must do two things. He must begin to integrate the players from Under-23s who are doing very well, but at the same time qualify for the  Africa Cup of Nations finals. There cannot be any questions about that,” he says.
“I think we have a good chance to qualify for the  World Cup as well. We have quality players. It’s how he’s going to manage the process that is vital.”
It’s clear that for a footballing country of South Africa’s size, qualifying for Afcon should not be the height of their ambition. But with a changing football landscape that is largely stacked against them, it means the Class of 1996 might still be spoken about in revered tones for the next 25 years.