It was Nelson Mandela who said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” And although the South African statesman's wisdom is beyond question, in this case Mandela had the benefit of hindsight when he made that famous quote in 2000.
When he became South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994, his country and people were still fractured by the ills of apartheid. However, two events occurred over the next two years that contributed hugely toward transition. As Mandela noted, both of them occurred on a sports field. The first was the lifting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and the second was Bafana Bafana winning the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in front of home supporters.
The coach and captain of that team, Clive Barker and Neil Tovey respectively, played pivotal roles in the historic moment, and they recently spoke to FIFA.com 20 years after leading South Africa to what remains their greatest footballing triumph.
Barker recalls that the national team, who had been banned from international competition because of Apartheid, were under great pressure ahead of the 1996 AFCON, which South Africa hosted. “When I watched Joel Stransky drop kick that goal against New Zealand that won the Rugby World Cup for South Africa, I sat right behind the posts. I knew how much pressure that result was going to put on us because really, it was black South Africa that supported football, and they wanted to say that they could also do and emulate what the rugby players had done.”
Notwithstanding the expectations, both Barker and Tovey believed the team was strong and could challenge for the trophy. “We knew we were very good because we were already getting results. We drew with Argentina and Germany just prior to our preparations for the tournament, so we knew we could play and get results. But we needed a good start, and the Cameroon match was very, very important to us winning the tournament,” said Tovey about the 3-0 victory that opened the tournament.
Bafana Bafana followed up with a 1-0 win against Angola that secured their place in the quarter-finals, but they changed their team for the final group match against Egypt and lost 1-0. “We had already qualified, and we mixed and matched a little bit. It was a little bit of a calculated risk, and I was prepared to take the chance. After we lost, I did a Brian Clough in getting the players out and having a beer together.
“After that, we never looked back and of course the game of the tournament for us was when we played Ghana in the semi-finals. They were known as the Brazil of Africa and we really were magnificent that night [in a 3-0 victory]. I thought that we would have beaten any team in the world with that display.”
South Africa went on to beat Tunisia 2-0 in the final, and Tovey famously received the trophy from Mandela, who was proudly wearing a Bafana jersey. The captain admits that he was not aware of the magnitude of the victory at the time. “For any particular match, you don't quite know the history and the consequence that are going to surround your victory. I knew it was a very special occasion to do it on home soil and to get the trophy presented by the most iconic person in the world is obviously something very, very special.”
Barker is convinced that the 1996 triumph played an important part in South Africa's transition into a more modern society. “People don't realize that football broke down more barriers than any politician did. Football had started changing things already in the seventies. We were making a change through football and really sport overall did it for South Africa”
For Tovey, who is now the country's technical director, another legacy of 1996 is the contribution the players have made to the on-going growth of South African football. “The team has been very successful from then on in terms of providing coaches that have stayed in the game. Clive is still a coach, of course, and Roger de Sa [at Ajax Cape Town]. There is also Eric Tinkler at Pirates and Doc [Doctor Khumalo] at Kaizer Chiefs and then Sean Bartlett now at Tuks. So the guys have done exceptionally well.