South Africa 1996: Bafana Bafana’s Triumph
A year after the historic victory of Kitch Christie’s team at the Rugby World Cup in 1995, South Africa also emerged victorious at home, in football this time, in its first Africa Cup of Nations. Flash back.
There aren’t a thousand ways to change one’s life. Nobody knows if Mark Williams ever opened a Jack Kerouac book, but according to his personal legend he, too, decided to be ‘desirous of everything at the same time’ when he reached the turning point of his thirties.
One night of February 1996 in Durban: Williams is pacing. An odd fate for a man who could have been miles away from that anguish, enjoying his newfound status as an English second division striker, in Wolverhampton, only a couple of years after leaving his native Cape Town. One detail: at the time when Graham Taylor, former national team manager and then fleeting coach of the Wolves, offers him to extend his contract, Mark Williams refuses and screws over his own professional future. The reason is simple: “As a South African, and with everything Mandela had done for our country, coming back and representing my country instead of staying in my comfort zone quickly became the right thing to do, he explained in FourFourTwo in February 2016. It wasn’t an easy choice but it was our home, and this was an appointment I just couldn’t miss.”
So here’s why Williams is in that Durban hotel room on the night of February 3rd 1996. But his anguish comes from somewhere else. The Bafana Bafana striker just lost, for the first time in his life, a game of pool against another selection member. No matter if the Africa Cup of Nations final is the next day, he wants to play another game in order to get a proper night’s sleep. “My opponent refused, but his wife insisted he played me again. I swept the table in two minutes. I was able to go out, dance, have a few beers. The rugby men of the 1995 World Cup were there. I told them that’s how I saw the competition, and the rest is history.”
“We were ready to die for that jersey”
Talking about history: a year after the memorable win of François Pienaar and his boys in front of Nelson Mandela, history did repeat itself. To understand the significance of South Africa’s win in CAN 1996, one has to understand the context in which the team was created: built five years prior, but blocked by the suspension imposed by FIFA in 1963 as long as apartheid was in place. So CAN 1996 marks the first time Bafana Bafana took part in the competition, two years after failing to qualify for the Tunisian edition. Elected two years prior as president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once again had the chance to show the world, by organising the Cup at home, the unity of the “rainbow nation”.
Here’s the picture: South Africa is in group A, led by the charismatic Clive Barker, and frankly looks like the perfect victim. “It really clicked during the quarter final against Algeria. Everybody realised then that we were ready to die for that jersey”, Mark Williams explained. Previously, Barker’s boys had nevertheless rocked Cameroon (3-0) and Angola (1-0), their defeat against Egypt (0-1) in the last group game having no impact on the results. In the quarter final in Johannesburg, the team mentally dominates the Fennecs (2-1) and finally sweep Ghana, one of the continent’s toughest teams, from the last elimination round with 3-0.
Mandela through a telescope
The South African team takes its marks: every morning, Nelson Mandela shares their breakfast, each trip ends in a walkabout… During the final against Tunisia, Clive Barker nevertheless decides to bench Mark Williams, outshone by legend John Moshoeu, until the seventy minutes mark. At the seventy-fifth, Williams already scored twice, offering South Africa a definitive advantage (2-0). The hero recalls: “I looked twenty meters away and I could see Mandela, he was crying. It was as if I was looking through a telescope. I could see his face and tears of joy.” After the win, Mandela even breaks in a quick dance, he who would use football as an escape during his imprisonment on Robben Island, and offers the cup to captain Neil Tovey. It is to this day the height of South African football despite a continental final in 1998 and a third place in 2000. As if the team had fallen victim to a success as sudden as unexpected. Historic, nonetheless.