Just four years after the lifting of the international ban, South Africa has risen to top spot in the continent.

The dark clouds and rain that loomed over the normally sunny coastal seaside resort city of Durban on the night of South Africa’s first match back in international soccer were an indication of the turbulent times to come for the soccer-mad country.

It was pouring down on what should have been a night of celebration when South Africa played Cameroon on July 7, 1992 at Durban’s King’s Park Stadium in their first international fixture since the ending of a 26-year-old FIFA ban.

Apartheid, the system of racial discrimination of one ethnic group over another, had kept sport in South Africa in chains for decades, and the match against Cameroon was to be a celebration of a long-awaited return. South Africa won that game 1:0, with a dubious late penalty awarded to the home team, but their poor form combined with the unseasonable weather gave an indication of some troubled times ahead.

Indeed, South Africa did struggle through its first two years back in the international arena as coaches and footballers found themselves caught out by the modern advances of the game.

But now, four and a half years on, the African country is sitting on top of the continental heap as reigning African champions and have won the 1996 award as the best mover in the FIFA/ Coca-Cola World Ranking.

It has been a heady 54 months for South African football, which has seen the country come back from the low of embarrassing defeats to take a position among the world’s top 20 footballing nations.

The potential, of course, was always there with South Africa having played professional football since 1958 but the opportunity denied by the government of the day’s policies. Generations of talented footballers, both black and white, never got a chance to display their talents on the international stage, nor represent their country.As a result, top talent was lost and names like Percy "Chippa" Moloi, Trevor Gething, Nelson "Teenage" Dladla, Pule "Ace" Ntsoelengos, Eric "Scara" Sono and his son Jomo remain known only within the confines of the borders of South Africa.

Turning point in 1994
Some South Africans had to play for other countries in order to reach the top of world football. Players like Bill Perry, who was classified a second-class citizen in South Africa and yet went to play alongside Sir Stanley Matthews for both Blackpool and England; former Scotland captain Richard Gough and US international Roy Wegerle.

But since the decision of the FIFA Congress in Zurich in July, 1992, South Africa have broken the isolation to take their place among the brotherhood of nations.

The turning point in the team’s fortunes, after its failure to qualify for both the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA and the 1994 African Nations Cup finals in Tunisia, probably came on the dusty pitch at Antananarivo, Madagascar in September 1994.

There Bafana Bafana, the nickname of the South African team, survived a missed penalty by the opposition and hostile conditions to come away with a 1:0 win – their first ever away triumph in a competitive match and a major morale booster for the team.

It was at about the same time that coach Clive Barker, the fourth man to take charge of the team within two years, was beginning to mould together a winning team spirit, based on building a family atmosphere and taking the pressure off the players.

Months later South Africa stepped in to take over from Kenya as hosts of the African Nations Cup finals and the ball began to roll in earnest for Bafana.

The year 1995 saw some heady preparation for the Nations Cup, with friendly internationals against Argentina and Germany and a host of African teams.

Coming into the Nations Cup finals in 1995, South Africa had amassed an unbeaten record of 13 games, moved up to within the top 50 in the FIFA rankings, and were quietly confident of success, even if the experts had not included them among the list of favorites.

On 3 February, six games later, South Africa were crowned African champions at their very first attempt, beating Tunisia in the final of the competition amid dramatic scenes at the imposing Soccer City in Johannesburg.

Still celebrating
President Nelson Mandela, his famous smile beaming above a national team shirt, was there to celebrate with his old political foes in a dramatic gesture of reconciliation that made the day more than just a victory for South African football. It was for the whole country too. And since then the team, and the nation, have not stopped celebrating, turning now to a bid for a place in the biggest competition of them all, the 1998 World Cup in France.

South African footballers today find themselves sought after property internationally, with key national team individuals like Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe, Doctor Khumalo, John Moshoeu and Eric Tinkler playing in the top leagues of the world.

It seems the dark days of apartheid, and the dark clouds over Durban, have long since disappeared. The sun is now truly shining down on South African football.