In just over 600 days, South Africa will become the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup™ finals.
It is ironic, though, that the country was among the last of the continent's 53 FIFA members to participate in the tournament, their entry to previous FIFA World Cup preliminaries having been firmly blocked by the international sports boycott imposed because the country was ruled on the principle of racial segregation.
However, once the Apartheid shackles were broken, FIFA was one of the first international sporting organisations to accept South Africa back into its ranks, and in 1992 the country's national side embarked on their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
10 October, 1992, National Stadium, Surelere, Lagos
Nigeria 4-0 South Africa*
Scorers: Owubokiri 34, Siasia 56, Yekini 65, 89
* Nigeria: Shorunmu, Ugbade, Eguavoen, Keshi, Iroha, Ezeugo, Monye, Siasia, Yekini, Owubokiri (Malik 78), Ikpeba (George 63).
South Africa: Anderson, Motaung, Kambule, Links, Komphela, Radebe (Gordon 75), Tovey, Rowbotham (Khuse 53), Makalakalane, B Masinga, P Masinga.
It was much more than just a football match when new boys South Africa travelled to Nigeria. It was the first sporting contact between the two economic superpowers of the continent.
Nigeria had a reputation to protect but were uncertain what challenge South Africa posed. "We shared the same hotel before the match and I remember sitting in the lobby when they arrived and thinking to myself how professional the South Africans looked with their tracksuits, and how organised they seemed to be, with kit managers and all sorts of support staff," recalls Super Eagles coach Clemens Westerhof. "I thought we were going to have a really tough time."
Despite decades of isolation, South Africa had a flourishing professional league, but had never before been able to measure their standard against credible opposition. On top of the voyage of discovery, it was also the opening salvo in the three-team group at the start of the qualifiers, with just the top placed finisher earning the right to advance to the next stage.
Both sides hoped for a positive start but had been beset by ructions. South Africa had already lost two CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, and coach Stanley 'Screamer' Tshabalala was under pressure to beef up his squad with more physically robust players. Westerhof was also feeling the heat after his reluctance to give a chance in his side to Richard Owubokiri, then among the leading strikers in Europe after a hatful of goals in the Portuguese league.
* Bafana Bafana *captain Neil Tovey remembers leading his side out from the underground tunnel, which brought the players up from the change rooms, and into the blinding sunlight. "It was just a wall of noise, it hit me like a punch to the body," says the former centre-back, who went on to win 52 caps for his country. "It so was scary, you could see the fear in the players' eyes." A packed crowd, estimated at some 60,000, had come to Surelere for the game, eager to see the Super Eagles make a positive start to their FIFA World Cup qualifying bid and, at the same time, keen to see the new kids on the block.
But the South Africans proved so overwhelmed by the atmosphere that they made virtually no impression, pinned on the back foot for almost the entire game. Nigeria sauntered away with the tie, and the 4-0 winning margin in reality flattered South Africa. Owubokiri proved the pundits right with the first goal but Nigeria also hit the woodwork twice.
After the break, as the suffocating tropical heat and humidity hung heavy over the stadium, there came three more goals. Samson Siasia danced his way past an attempted offside trap to make it 2-0 early in the second half, and then the burly strength of Rachidi Yekini came to the fore as the Bafana Bafana crumbled in front of him.
"They had a purple patch when they absolutely flattened us," remembers striker George Dearnaley, who had won his first call up to the South Africa squad for the match. A scrambled goal from Yekini made it 3-0 with 25 minutes left, and he added a fourth for good measure at the end of the game. Players then ran for cover as the jubilant crowd invaded the pitch.
The starRachidi Yekini was not known as the 'Goals Father' for nothing. Standing over 1.90m tall and weighing some 100kg, he was a terrifying prospect for opposing defences, and the fulcrum of Nigeria's success in the 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. At the finals in the USA, his exuberant celebration of a goal against Bulgaria in Dallas created a iconic picture of him screaming in delight, his hands jubilantly pumping through the back of the net. Yekini also made his name at club level in Portugal, but his career sadly petered out because of injury.
"We realised that this might be our own last chance at playing in the World Cup finals, so our efforts were well focused," Nigeria coach Clemens Westerhof
"We were part-time amateurs compared to them," South Africa goalkeeper Mark Anderson
What happened next
Nigeria cruised on to win their first round group effortlessly, beating Congo both home and away and being unlucky not to win the return match against* Bafana Bafana* in Johannesburg, when Yekini had a goal ruled out for offside. They did not concede a single goal in their initial qualifying group.
In the second round, the Nigerians were up against Algeria and Côte d'Ivoire for a first-ever place in the FIFA World Cup finals. In their first match, they lost 2-1 to the Ivorians in Abidjan, but after winning their next two games at home, they needed only a draw in their last group game in Algiers to qualify. This they did, to tumultuous scenes of celebration back in Lagos.