Neil Tovey will always be remembered as the man who led South Africa during the most glorious period in the country’s footballing history, when Bafana Bafana were not only a powerhouse in Africa but also one of the top 20 countries in the FIFA rankings.
That might sound like a distant memory as the hosts sit on the edge of elimination from South Africa 2010, but Tovey believes that this side can be transformed into a formidable outfit – and that journey, he insists, should begin with a morale-boasting victory against France in Bloemfontein on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to say much about our team now, because everyone is an expert in hindsight, but I’m sure when we do our own analysis, we certainly feel there are some things that could have been done differently," he said. "A lot is at stake for the FIFA World Cup, but there is still hope. We can still get back to where we used to be."
The last few days might have been tough for Bafana's players, but Tovey is a man whose tenure as a national team captain equipped him with priceless experience. He has been through some of the tough moments, when, then an unknown entity, South Africa was on the receiving end of heavy defeats after being allowed back into the footballing family. But the memories of a triumphant 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations campaign are still vivid – a day that brought South Africa to a grinding halt as the newly formed Rainbow Nation savoured it’s proudest football moment just over three years after readmission.
It was a victory achieved through a combination of tenacity, dedication and spirit. South Africa, then an unknown entity in the world after decades of obscurity following their ban by FIFA from international competition in protest of the segregation laws, nonetheless impressed critics and admirers with a performance that earned the team rave ratings. Today, Tovey’s 1996 triumphant team is often referred to as the “Golden Generation” of South African football.
“I guess everyone would say that his generation was the best, so I won’t say we were the best generation, I will leave that to the experts," Tovey said. "But what I know is that we brought so much joy to this country after our victory. It came at a critical time when we were all looking for something to bring joy and happiness in our lives and on that day, you could see the happiness in the eyes of many."
Peaks and valleys
The nostalgia of that victory has never escaped Tovey’s mind. He remembers how they entered the tournament as underdogs, but “surprised them all.” “It was one of the happiest days of our lives. For the 23 guys who were part of the set-up, I’m sure those memories will last forever. We had some talented players who were match winners – a guy like Doctor Khumalo, for example, would be quiet for the better part of the match, but when he gets the ball, he delivers a killer pass,” he added.
There is a stark contrast from the 1996 team to the South African side of today. Then Bafana combined flair with clinical finishing, every move was thoughtful, and yet creativity seemed to be in the DNA of that team. It was probably the team that could have carried South Africa’s flag highest at World Cup level, but they were only able to come on the scene when they were ageing and on it’s last few laps.
On Tuesday, South Africa will take a leap step of faith as they seek to overcome their 3-0 defeat to Uruguay earlier this week against a heavily favoured France. The former Bafana captain is optimistic that the team can restore pride. “We have to embark on a rebuilding process. We need to look at what has been the root of our problems and once we figure that out, we have to implement measures to climb the ladder again. South Africa should be amongst the powerhouse of African football, we have to return to the glory days,” Tovey said.
Tovey has made a successful transmission from a player to a coach. He now mentors coastal side, Amazulu from Durban.