Striker Myron Shongwe scored twice in the second half as South Africa defeated Niger 2-0 today in Sudan to virtually seal an African Nations Championship quarter-finals place. A team dismissed in their own country as no-hopers need one point from their final fixture against Zimbabwe this weekend to be sure of making the knockout phase in a tournament for home-based footballers.
Zimbabwe finally lived up to the high expectations of coach Madinda Ndlovu with a 1-0 victory over 2009 silver medalists Ghana courtesy of a 70th-minute goal from midfielder Archieford Gutu. South Africa have six points after two rounds, Zimbabwe and Niger three each and Ghana none despite entering the championship among the favourites to go all the way.
Shongwe, who equalised last Sunday in a shock come-from-behind 2-1 triumph over Ghana, became joint leading scorer with Algerian Hilal Soudani by bagging a brace. He broke the deadlock on 56 minutes at Wad Medani, a regional centre 200 kilometres south of Sudanese capital Khartoum, and ensured his team of three points with a second goal three minutes before full-time.
Niger, shock qualifiers at the expense of Nigeria, began with a 1-0 win over Zimbabwe in Group B and believed they could avenge a two-goal loss to South African in the stronger Africa Cup of Nations last September.
Coach Harouna Doula reasoned that a team containing many of the footballers who faced the best South Africa had to offer could fare better against a side composed largely of third-tier league players. But he was gravely mistaken as coach Simon Ngomane has moulded into a potent force footballers who would not be recognised as international footballers if they walked the streets of Johannesburg.
A respected South African Sunday newspaper columnist believed the team were on a hiding to nothing in Sudan, saying Ngomane was "not bringing a knife to a gun fight - he was bringing a pink drink". "It (the squad) is so woefully underpowered that it risks making a mockery of the tournament, which is intended to promote and test the strength of African domestic leagues."
The national mood of pessimism was triggered by the refusal of Premiership and first division clubs to release any footballers as they chase titles or battle against relegation. As the team slipped out of the country virtually unnoticed and with minimal media coverage, Ngomane remained hopeful that the first appearance of South Africa at the Nations Championship would not cause embarrassment.
"I would like people back home in South Africa to give this team a chance and get behind them. Not many believe in us, but there is a lot to come from this side," he predicted.