When the Boys played Brazil

23 June 2009

South Africa’s soccer team (whose nickname means “The Boys”) take on Brazil in a Confederations Cup semifinal at Ellis Park on Thursday. The two teams have only met twice before, both times in Johannesburg, the first time in one of the most memorable matches in Bafana Bafana’s short history.

While Brazil, with a record five World Cup titles to their name, have a long history as one of the powerhouses of football, the same cannot be said for Bafana Bafana, whose first international outing as an integrated national team only took place in 1992.

However, South Africa’s first outing against the South Americans remains a powerful memory for SA football fans.

Africa champs vs world champs

It took place on 24 April 1996. The occasion was the Nelson Mandela Challenge, and the contest was eagerly awaited: it pitted the African champions of 1996 against the World Cup winners of 1994.

The Brazilian line-up included some World Cup winners, as well as members of the Brazilian Olympic team, who were using the match as a warm-up ahead of the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Coach Mario Zagallo’s line-up included Rivaldo, who would go on to be crowned Fifa World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year (while playing for Barcelona) in 1999. He played 74 times for Brazil in his career, scoring an impressive 34 times.

Bebeto, Aldair, Dida

Up front, Bebeto was a household name. He had captured the attention of the world in the 1994 World Cup – the second of three in which he played – when he celebrated a goal against The Netherlands in the quarterfinals by rocking an imaginary baby; his wife had given birth to his third child only days earlier. Bebeto played 75 times for Brazil and netted 39 goals.

At the back, the Brazilians had central defender Aldair, a man who made such a mark for Italian Serie A club Roma, for whom he played 415 matches, that when he retired in 2006 the team retired his number six jersey. He turned out for his country on 81 occasions.

Goalkeeper Dida played even more matches for Brazil, making 91 international appearances.

Clearly, it was a quality side.

African Nations Cup winning captain

Facing the Brazilians was a South African team captained by Neil Tovey, the same man who had led Bafana Bafana to victory in the African Nations Cup final against Tunisia at the same stadium where SA was to face the world champions.

The man in charge was Clive “The Dog” Barker, the popular coach who had pulled the strings when South Africa lifted the continental title.

At the back, in central defence, was Lucas Radebe, who would go on to succeed Tovey as captain and become one of the most popular players in the history of Bafana Bafana. As a star player for Leeds United, he was recognised as one of the best defenders in the tough English Premier League.

The ‘most Brazilian’ South African

In Bafana Bafana’s midfield was Doctor Khumalo, a player whose touch and skill made him the “most Brazilian” of the South African side, in the romantic sense in which Brazilian football is often viewed.

The South African attack featured Phil “Chippa” Masinga, who would score the goal against Congo the following year that would earn South Africa a place at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Alongside Masinga was Shaun Bartlett, who would go on to become Bafana Bafana’s all-time leading goal scorer – with 28 in 74 matches – before his mark was eventually surpassed by Benni McCarthy.

‘For President Mandela’

In the lead-up to match, Barker said the game was “for President Mandela. What a night it will be if we beat Brazil”. South Africa didn’t win, but what a contest it turned out to be.

In a first half that left many of the home team’s fan incredulous, South Africa took the game to Brazil and were rewarded for their intent. Masinga put South Africa into a 25th-minute lead, and Doctor Khumalo made it 2-0 at the break, to the delight of Bafana’s fans.

However, the Brazilians fought back after the break, with winger Flavio netting in the 56th minute. Twelve minutes later, Rivaldo made it 2-2.

Then, with only four minutes left, Bebeto snatched the winner for the visitors.

A top-class international outfit

Although South Africa were beaten, the match provided ample proof that South Africa’s African Nations Cup title was no fluke; it validated the recognition the side sought as a top-class international outfit.

It also proved to be a wonderful celebration of the game of football, and of the role Nelson Mandela played in bringing democracy to the country.

In case you were wondering about Bafana Bafana’s second clash with Brazil, it took place in December 1997. Brazil won 2-1, with goals from Romario and Bebeto. Helman Mkhelele replied for South Africa.

What will Thursday night bring? True fans would welcome a similar degree of entertainment, regardless of the result.

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