It appears that the South African manager had a good strategy. The majority of our team, with at least eight players in any starting eleven during this tournament, are from Mamelodi Sundowns. This club is not just any team, but one of the most successful in Africa. They have achieved victory in the African Champions League and recently, in November 2023, emerged as champions in a “super league” competition featuring the top 24 club teams in Africa.

By Sean Jacobs

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm (the inspiration for this project) once remarked: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”

I watched South Africa’s semifinal match against Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations on Wednesday at my university. I helped organise a conference room with a monitor, linked my sports streaming service to it, and spread the word to anyone with a remote connection to Africa – students and fellow faculty – to stop by. A few people trickled in and out. I stayed for the whole match.

On social media, most people were cheering for South Africa. The country is riding a wave. Even I got caught up in the hype. First, there was the momentous ruling at the International Court of Justice in a case that South Africa brought against Israel for its violent campaign against Palestinians in Gaza, which basically confirmed Israel’s government and its military as genocidaires. The praise was well deserved.

Then, the pop singer Tyla won a Grammy for her Tiktok-friendly song Water. Finally, in a previous round of Afcon, as the African Cup of Nations is known, we knocked out one of the semi-finalists of the last World Cup. Now we were in the semifinals. It is only the beginning of February, and we seem to be on a roll: winning.

We were not supposed to do this well in this Afcon. In the lead-up to the tournament, we lost a World Cup qualifier to Rwanda 2-0 in November 2023. Then, we drew a friendly match before the tournament against lowly Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa. Most South Africans didn’t like the coach, Hugo Broos. He had also insulted the domestic league before, and here he was, taking a team of players from local clubs to the tournament. He was also the oldest coach at the World Cup. South Africa’s record at Afcon had been one of decline: We won Afcon (1996), was a finalist (1998), then third (2000), and once made it to the quarterfinals (2019). South Africans were expecting the worst.

It didn’t matter to impatient fans that Broos had won Afcon with Cameroon in 2017. It also didn’t matter that Bafana Bafana, as the South African national team is known, had overachieved by some measures since we were allowed into international football after the end of apartheid. Most countries in Africa would love to have South Africa’s record. Add to our Afcon record, we qualified for the World Cup twice, in 1998 and 2002. Only one other country in the Southern African region, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has qualified for the World Cup.

Also, football is not some sport played with an oval ball by primarily former colonies of a once empire. It is an actual global sport. But football fans want to win. Fifty-four African countries compete for five places at the World Cup (increased to nine at the 2026 World Cup) and 24 slots at the Afcon. 

Going into this tournament, the fact that many players in Bafana Bafana play in the South African domestic league was said to count against us at Afcon. 

Usually, in national team football in Africa, coaches pick players who play in Europe or represent nations like England, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium at the youth level, the children of the diaspora. The manager would then complement these with those from B-grade leagues in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, or Denmark. One argument was that South Africa had no option but to show faith in domestic players when we hardly had any playing in top foreign leagues. The three members of the South African squad, who make their money outside, play in the Portuguese second division, Egypt, and Cyprus, respectively.

European-based players have access to better training and coaching. Because infrastructure on the continent had been neglected and national club leagues had collapsed, it made sense to do so. As the Nigerian football writer Osasu Obayiuwana reminded his followers on Twitter, there is no national football training centre in Nigeria for the Super Eagles as the team is known to train and prepare for matches. This is for a country that qualified for six World Cups and won three Afcons.

The performances of Morocco at the 2022 World Cup and Senegal, the current Afcon title holders, in recent times have been held up as the best practice of this strategy: combining investment in the national team with luring the best from the diaspora.

But in the end, it seems South Africa’s manager was onto something. Most of our team –  at least eight players in any of our starting eleven in any game at this tournament – plays for the South African club, Mamelodi Sundowns. This is not any club, but one of Africa’s most successful. They have won the African Champions League and just, in November 2023, won a kind of “super league” competition of the top 24 club teams in Africa. And they have displaced North African teams, the only leagues that can rival South Africa for competitiveness and organization, as the continent’s best. 

The effect on the field was that the South Africans played with a certain familiarity. Most national teams gather right before the tournament and must figure out tactics or get used to playing together. What South Africa was doing was a throwback. Think Spain with FC Barcelona or Germany with Bayern Munchen. 

Finally, South Africa’s professional league is one of the best in Africa. It is well-organized, and the players are well-paid. There is no need for an excellent South African player to leave the comfort of home for a cold reception in less glamorous leagues in Europe, where many of their opponents in the competition toil away.

South Africa’s road to the semifinal didn’t start well. Mali outplayed us in our opening group stage match, losing 0-2, but then convincingly beat Namibia 4-0. In our final game, we played to a goalless draw with Tunisia to finish second in the group. It set up the match-up with Morocco, who had comfortably qualified from group play. That game was probably one of the tournament’s highlights and highlighted South Africa’s reliance on home-based players. The tense quarterfinal against Cape Verde, in which captain Ronwen Williams set a new record by any goalkeeper in any continental competition for saving four consecutive penalties, brought us to Wednesday.  

When the game against Nigeria started, I was realistic, expecting a spirited showing but that we’d be overwhelmed by the Nigerians whose best players play in some of Europe’s top leagues, like the Premier League and Serie A. 

The longer the game went on, the stronger we got. When Nigeria scored, it felt like an anticlimax. Nigeria had become lethargic and unimaginative while we had taken the game to them. Then, with 5 minutes to go, they scored a second goal to kill the match. But the goal was called back because of a foul on a South African player. I was having dreams of another upset. But extra time came and went, and then penalties. My mood changed. This time, I didn’t expect that goalkeeper Ronwen Williams would save us again. It was a bridge too far. 

At the game, I was both proud and completely exhausted.

At the end of the match, as I walked back to my office, all I could get out for a post on social media was a combination of something the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said, along with a snippet from a 1980s slogan from working-class struggles in apartheid South Africa: “We died on our feet. Forward ever, backwards never.” –

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