Barring unforeseen circumstances, Bongani Khumalo will go down in history on 19 January as he becomes the third player to captain Bafana Bafana into a major competition played at home. Following in the footsteps of Neil Tovey (1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations) and Aaron Mokoena (2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2010 FIFA World Cup™), Khumalo will lead the players out as they take on Cape Verde Islands in the opening match of the 2013 CAF Africa cup of Nations.
Having already been in the South Africa squads for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, as well as the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Khumalo is experienced at playing at the highest level. However, captaining the side at a such a prestigious event will be something new for the 25-year-old, who plays his club football for Greek club PAOK, where he is on loan from Tottenham Hotspur.
And with a place at the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil at stake for the AFCON winners, FIFA.com found the captain in determined mood. "It is hard to find words to describe what it feels like to know that I will captain the side at the finals,” he said. “It is like a dream come true. I would never have imagined that something of this magnitude was possible. I’m very grateful to be in this place and for the great deal of confidence that the coach and others have in me. I am very humbled and hope now that I will be able to inspire my team-mates to success."
Ahead of their opening match, Khumalo and the other players in the squad have constantly been asked about the victorious 1996 team and it is something that somewhat irks the current squad of players. "I am part of a new generation of players, although there are a lot of players with experience from the World Cup. The cup-winning side of 1996 have been mentioned over and over again, and it was a great moment for South African football. But now, as hosts for 2013, it's important that we create new memories. It was a great part of our history, but as players we need to create our own memories. We have a squad of players we believe in," he said.
Eyes on the opener
The hosts have been drawn into Group A, alongside Cape Verde, Angola and Morocco, and the captain says he, like most of the country, is squarely focused on the opener. "Although there are several very strong sides in the competition, it is very important for us to focus on the first match and then take it from there. Having said that, it is very important that we start with a good game against Cape Verde and ultimately, that could prove to be the most important match."
Khumalo, who started his playing career at Pretoria-based Arcadia Shepherds - the same club that 1996 winner Mark Fish played for - says he is confident that the team can do well. "We have a good bunch of players, we want to achieve a lot and we want to perform. The game is about achieving and as we are playing at home, we need to give even more to achieve even more."
He counts the connection between the players as a major factor in the current team, saying: "There is a great team spirit in the squad and the players show real character. I would say that we have a winning spirit and hopefully that will come into play once the competition starts."
Leading the Rainbow Nation
Khumalo has taken over the captain's armband from Everton's Steven Pienaar, who turned down an opportunity to play at the finals. It is a course of action, Khumalo says he could not imagine for himself. "I do not want to say anything about players who no longer want to play for their national team. That is their decision, but for me it is an honour. As a youngster I used to watch the games and since joining the national team each game is an honour, regardless of how many games I have played. There are always so many people watching and they expect great things. I will always be available to play for my country."
The defender, who was born in Swaziland as his mother was studying there at the time, joined the University of Pretoria from Arcadia and then moved to SuperSport United. After the 2010 World Cup finals, he received an invitation to go on trials at Tottenham, who then signed him. But after struggling to make the grade in England, he has since become a regular starter in the PAOK line-up. He believes that new Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund will make a difference to the team. Like his team-mates he is impressed with the way Igesund has taken on the task. "Obviously the coach came in shortly before a major tournament, and he has new ideas and a new style of coaching. He has freshened up things and has introduced new players and a new set-up. I am confident that his ideas will work."