It was a sunny Sunday morning in February of 1996 and South Africa had just arisen with fond memories of the previous night's victory, achieved through a combination of hard-work, panache and resilience. Hours earlier, Bafana Bafana had defied the odds to ascend to the highest summit of African football, majestically claiming their maiden triumph in the CAF African Cup of Nations tournament at Johannesburg's Soccer City.
Until that point, no South African football players had gained substantial international acclaim, with the possible exception of Jomo Sono, former team-mate of legends Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. However, the spirited performance of the South African squad during that 1996 tournament, most notably their tenacious display against highly-rated Tunisia in the final, changed the lives of many of the players and thrust the nation into the international spotlight.
To the world stage
Memories of their gutsy exploits are still crystal clear in the minds of those who were on the pitch in 1996 for the important triumph that brought South Africa squarely into the international football arena, indeed foreshadowing their first appearance in a FIFA World Cup™ two years hence. And while the names of players such as Jomo Sono, Kaizer Motaung, Patrick ‘Ace' Ntsoelengoe, Neil Tovey, Computer Lamola, Professor Ngubane, Teenage Dladla, Bashin Mahlangu were not widely known beyond the borders years ago, they became household names in South Africa.
It was, therefore, no great surprise when South Africa received boisterous support from their fanatical supporters during the run-up to their historic win in 1996, helping to spur them on to victory. But it was surely the individual brilliance of the players themselves that sealed the fate of their many opponents.
South African fans delighted in willowy midfield maestro Theophilus ‘Doctor' Khumalo, whose dazzling skills and ability to dictate the game made him a crowd favourite right away. Mark Williams scored two goals against Tunisia and finished as a joint top goalscorer in the tournament, propelling him from relative obscurity to national fame. And Mark Fish was a relatively unknown youngster who nonetheless displayed maturity beyond his years, bringing composure to his side. So where are these beloved heroes now?
Legends in transition
Former defensive stalwart Lucas Radebe was able to capitalize on his side's success in 1996 to bolster his international career, serving as the long-time captain of Leeds United where ‘The Chief's' dedication and accomplishments made him a fan favourite. Upon retirement, Radebe traded his football boots for the business world and became active in product endorsement. While Radebe may be the most well known member of the ‘Class of ‘96', many others are still idolised in South Africa.
Despite being perceived by some of his team-mates as reserved, Khumalo has made a name for himself as a football analyst in South Africa. He has been joined in this endeavour by his former coach Clive Barker, as well as former team-mate Shaun Bartlett. Together with the good Doctor, Neil Tovey, the man who captained the side in their historic win, also went on to achieve great notoriety within South Africa.
Tovey made a successful transition from player to manager, having guided popular South African side Mamelodi Sundowns to a league triumph before becoming the head coach at Durban-based side Amazulu. And Shoes Moshoeu, who formed a deadly combination in midfield with Khumalo, has yet to announce his official retirement from the game.
Phil Masinga, who scored the historic goal that sent South Africa to its first FIFA World Cup is another beloved member of the golden generation. After leaving Leeds United, Masinga spent time in Italy with former Serie A side Bari and the lanky forward became an ambassador for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
Khumalo and Fish also served as ambassadors for South Africa 2010 and, like Masinga, play active roles in critical initiatives such as youth development as the country continues its diligent preparations to host next year's global showpiece.