‘The Boys’ come of age

14 June 2002

South Africa’s national football team may not have progressed beyond the first round of the 2002 World Cup, but five goals, one win, one draw and a 3-2 thriller against one of the tournament favourites did more than erase the disappointment of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations in Mali – it confirmed South Africa’s arrival as a force in world football.

Bafana Bafana, “The Boys”, finished third in Group B, but only goal difference separated them from second-placed Paraguay and kept them from going through to the 16-nation knockout stage.

South Africa showed their mettle in their opening match, coming back from 2-0 down to stun the classy South Americans with goals from Teboho Mokoena and Quinton Fortune. The honours were even, and both sides went on to beat Slovenia and lose to Spain, each ending with four points.

Paraguay, however, scored one more goal than South Africa – the fact that they also conceded one more goal did not count – and that made all the difference.

‘The Black Prince’ – critical, intuitive, incisive as both player and coach
However, the Bafana class of 2002 was a far cry from the team that managed just one goal, two draws and a loss in South Africa’s World Cup debut in France ’98 – and that crashed out in the quarterfinals of the Africa Cup of Nations in Mali earlier this year.

In Daejon, Korea on June 12 – just 10 years after the country gained re-entry to Fifa in 1992 – “The Boys” refused to lie down before a Spanish team loaded with big names from Europe’s richest soccer league.

Spain, already assured of progression to the second round, made eight changes to their usual starting line-up, but were still able to field a team studded with players from Real Madrid, Barcelona, Deportiva la Coruna and Lazio, including several who have won the European Champions League on more than one occasion.

Raul, one of the world’s top strikers, scored both the opening goal and the crucial third decider. But Bafana Bafana came back twice, first through a volley from Benni McCarthy, then from a header from inspirational skipper Lucas Radebe.

Written off after an 18-month injury-enforced lay-off which saw him give up the captaincy at Leeds United, Radebe was outstanding in his second and last World Cup, his timely interceptions, tackles and intelligent reading of the game frustrating the opposition attack time and again.

Much of the credit for South Africa’s performance, however, has gone to caretaker coach Jomo Sono, who took over the reins just months before the team set sail for Asia.

Radebe himself said that Sono had “instilled a spirit that wasn’t there before under many previous coaches. The atmosphere among the squad at this World Cup has been better than on most other occasions over the 10 years I have been playing international football.”

Sono – widely regarded as one of the greatest players to come out of South Africa – said the team could return home with their heads held high: “This is maybe the best South African team ever, certainly better than four years ago. In another four years I think we will qualify for the second phase.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter