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‘Mandela Brought Extra Pressure’: The Story of South Africa’s Afcon Triumph

‘Mandela Brought Extra Pressure’: The Story of South Africa’s Afcon Triumph

Wednesday, 10 July, 2019 - 06:00
Nelson Mandela celebrates as South Africa’s captain, Neil Tovey, lifts the African Cup of Nations trophy in 1996. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
London - Ian Hawkey
For Clive Barker victory over Cameroon in South Africa’s opening game of the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations was a huge relief. Ever since he had watched Joel Stransky execute his drop goal at Ellis Park six months earlier the head coach felt Bafana Bafana had taken on some emotional freight.

The South Africa rugby team had made the most of their hosting a showpiece; could the football team do the same? The pressure was not spoken so much as strongly hinted at, as Barker sensed when one weekend in Durban well ahead of the Afcon his eight-year-old niece, Suzie, called to him that he had a phone call. “It’s Nelson,” said the schoolgirl, “and he says he wants to talk to you, Uncle Clive.”

Over the following months the president engaged with Barker and the team regularly, privately inspiring, publicly nation-building.

“He brought an extra pressure because he made sure you got the sort of message: ‘You know what happened with the rugby,’” recalls Barker. “But he was great with the players, always asking after their families, very hands-on when he mingled with them. Sometimes he would bring his grandchildren to the hotel. It was a real influence on us.’

In his let-the-games-begin speech Nelson Mandela had talked of ‘Africa rising’. And it was: Cameroon broke through a glass ceiling at the first World Cup of the 1990s, Nigeria performed thrillingly at the second, and, three weeks before the 1996 Afcon, an African international had for the first time been awarded the Ballon d’Or, the sport’s highest individual accolade. That was George Weah, of Milan, and captain of Liberia. Weah arrived at Durban airport before Liberia’s first fixture with a regal bearing and a faint aura of entitlement. He was probably due it. The best footballer in the world was in the habit of funding flights, hotels and equipment for the cash-strapped Liberia team, as well as scoring and setting up a very high proportion of their goals.

Meanwhile, in Port Elizabeth, a star-studded Ghana would be led by Abedi Pele, the playmaker and former Champions League winner with Marseille. Up front was Tony Yeboah, whose muscular performances and astonishing goals from long range for Leeds United had made Philomen Masinga something of an understudy at that club.

Lucas Radebe sat in the stands at Soccer City for the opening game against Cameroon. A week later he crossed a significant threshold, trotting on to a wet pitch as a substitute for the final 13 minutes of the next group match, against Angola. Mark Williams, once again the penalty-box predator, quickest to a loose ball, had given Bafana Bafana a 1–0 lead. Radebe came on to help insure it, and to test his knee.

This was welcome news for a Bafana Bafana who could begin to plan for the knockouts. A fortnight after cutting through Cameroon they met Algeria for a place in the last four at Soccer City. Doctor Khumalo had a first-half penalty saved just when the contest seemed to plead for some calm. Happily, into this pell-mell dived Mark Fish, stabbing at Masinga’s neat lay-off to put Bafana Bafana ahead with 18 minutes left. The South Africa defender was, alas, then beaten to a header for Algeria’s equaliser, nodded in from a corner. John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu settled any debate almost instantly, with an arrowed shot from outside the Algeria penalty area: 2–1 to the hosts. The open bowl of a soaked Soccer City turned into a jelly of bouncing umbrellas.

The big setback, though, was Masinga’s booking. He would be out of the semi-final, to where Ghana were en route, having defeated Zaire in Port Elizabeth, thanks to a goal from Yeboah. Such was Yeboah’s broad skill-set that there was a logic in assigning a dedicated marker to him. Barker had a volunteer. “I won’t let you down,” Radebe told his coach. As the teams lined up, Yeboah greeted his Leeds colleague, and made mention of the long injury. “Take it easy,” said Yeboah to Radebe, “you don’t want to hurt that knee again.”

Thus began the duel, the riveting centrepiece to the semi-final. First strike to Yeboah. Radebe, playing a straightforward pass across the defence, underhit it terribly. Yeboah pounced, teed up a confrontation with the goalkeeper, Andre Arendse, and the rapt crowd, hearts in mouths, watched the Ghanaian waste the opportunity. There were no further gifts but rather an exemplary study in adhesive man-marking. Radebe became Yeboah’s shadow.

At the other end of the pitch South Africa turned on the style with another Moshoeu showreel. He took Bafana Bafana’s first bold step to the final in spectacular fashion, planting a volley into the Ghanaian goal. Very soon after half-time Shaun Bartlett, in for the suspended Masinga, finished off a move begun by Radebe to thump Bafana Bafana two goals in front. Another Moshoeu virtuoso made it 3–0, with three minutes to go.

South Africa would now be meeting Tunisia, whose progress to the final had turned ominously stealthy. They had lost to Ghana in the group stage, squeaked past Gabon via a penalty shootout in the last eight and then apparently come into blossom as 4–2 winners against Zambia.

Barker then had a harder piece of information to give out: Williams was to be left out of the starting XI. Barker had seen Bartlett lead the line impressively against Ghana, and Masinga – the most naturally gifted of his strikers – was back from suspension. Setting out on the journey from Parktown to Soccer City, where spectators – thousands without tickets – had gathered many hours before kick-off, Williams was crestfallen. “It was a bit quiet in the bus,” recalls Barker, “and Mark sensed it. So then he got up and started dancing and singing and I thought: ‘What a great team man.’ I wouldn’t have taken it so lightly.”

Come the final, Williams waited restlessly through a goalless, tense first hour. He heard Barker bellow, “What the fuck are you doing?” at Fish for an unauthorised ramble upfield, and then, as he trotted up the touchline, Williams hatched a plan.

“They tell me that when he was warming up as a substitute, Mark Williams was telling the crowd, ‘Get the coach to play me!’” smiles Barker. “Well, he got his chance.”

Williams came on for Masinga in the 65th minute, the score still 0–0. In the 73rd a Doctor Khumalo free-kick picked out Fish, whose header fell to Eric Tinkler and, via a blocked effort, to the full-back Sizwe Motaung. From his cross, Williams headed the breakthrough goal. Two minutes later South Africa’s snubbed supersub did it again, Williams guiding a Khumalo through-ball across the goalkeeper with a purposeful left-footed finish, his fourth goal of the tournament and the end of Tunisia’s ambitions. In the VIP seats the president whooped.

The Guardian Sport

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