It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in February 1996 - four years after readmission from international football - that South Africa reached the pinnacle of football on the African continent, transcending expectations and claiming their maiden CAF African Cup of Nations title at Soccer City in Johannesburg with a 2-0 win over Tunisia.
It is rather tragic to note that some of the country's most decorated footballers, like Jomo ‘the Black Prince' Sono, Kaizer Motaung, Ace Ntsoelengoe, Tenage Dladla, Steve Mokone never got the opportunity to properly parade their skills in a national team jersey during the near-three decades of apartheid-enforced isolation. However, in the 17 years since readmission, South Africa has been making up for lost time in the international arena.
The country's senior team is known as Bafana Bafana (The Boys). They won the 1996 African crown and finished as runners-ups in the 1998 edition in Burkina Faso. They have qualified for two FIFA World Cups, the first at France 1998 where they drew two of their matches before heading for home after the group stages. They also lined up in 2002 in Korea/Japan, the first world finals to take place in Asia.
The team is currently coached by Brazilian tactician Joel Santana, who succeeded his countryman Carlos Alberto Parreira. Since re-admission, South Africa has featured a varied group of coaches, both local and foreign, with Durban-born Clive Barker the most successful of the lot. He guided the South Africans to that euphoric triumph in 1996 and molded what is fondly referred to in the country as ‘The Class of 96.' Other noteworthy former coaches include ex-Real Madrid and now Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz, Stuart Baxter, Philippe Troussier, Jomo Sono, Styles Phumo, Trott Moloto, Ted Dumitru, Shakes Mashaba, Stanley ‘Screamer' Tshabalala and Augusto Palacios.
The 1996 side, captained by Neil Tove, is still regarded as the best in the country's history. The winning line-up included the likes of Lucas Radebe, who later captained Leeds United in the English Premier League, Doctor Khumalo, Mark Fish, John Moshoeu, Phil Masinga, Mark Williams, Andre Arendse and many other heroes of yesteryear in the country.
Current skipper, Aaron Mokoena, is the most capped player in the country's history. He also became the youngest player to feature for Bafana Bafana when he earned his first cap at 18 years, two months and 26 days. striker Benni McCarthy, who is the only South African to score more than three goals in an international match, holds the record as all-time top marksman with 31 international goals. McCarthy also scored the country's first FIFA World Cup finals goal when South Africa held Denmark to a 1-1 draw at France 1998. Previously, Shaun Bartlett was the country's top goal getter with 29 international goals, including a brace against Saudi Arabia at those same finals in France.
The southernmost country in Africa has produced a strong string of talent in the last 10 years including McCarthy, Steven Pienaar, former Manchester United midfielder Quinton Fortune, Delron Buckley, Teko Modise and Mokoena, to name just a few. While Pienaar's imagination and maturity in the midfield has caught the eye of many enthusiasts, McCarthy remains the most successful exports from the country, with a UEFA Champions League medal under his belt. Up-and-coming players include youngsters like Tsepo Masilela, Siboniso Gaxa, Itumeleng Khune, Elrio van Heerden, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Bernard Parker.
South African officials are well aware that the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals is largely dependent on the national side performing with aplomb and there are high hopes Bafana Bafana could match, or even break, the African record of a quarter-final finish, set by Cameroon in 1990.
Prior to South Africa's suspension from FIFA, they had played just 22 full international matches, winning 16, drawing one and losing five. The vast majority of these games were against Australia. Most of South Africa's national team players now ply their club trade in the top leagues of the world, including countries like England, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Israel, Netherlands and Russia.