Would today's Bafana make the 1996 team? Booth says yes, Fish says no



By Leonard Solms, Special to ESPN


African football has come on strongly since South Africa lifted the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil in 1996, with Bafana Bafana largely being left in the dust over the last 28 years.

But some of their most recognisable former players are cautiously optimistic about the current squad.

Mark Fish and Roger de Sà, who were part of the '96 squad, acknowledged that the current team is some way off the standard of the late Clive Barker's charges, but nevertheless lauded the progress made under Hugo Broos since he took over in 2021 after they failed to qualify for the previous AFCON.

For former Bolton Wanderers centre-back Fish and ex-goalkeeper De Sà, the thought of a current Bafana player possibly taking the place of one of their teammates was difficult to imagine.

Fish told ESPN: "I think that football certainly has evolved and the game has certainly changed a lot since the '96 era, when we were fortunate to lift the trophy.

"Looking at the team now: would I replace any player in the '96 team with any player now? No, I would not.

"Because the players that played then hold a dear place in my heart and it was a time in football that was special to me, so I don't think I would change any player playing now for anyone that was in that squad."

Mark Fish played in the 1996 Africa Nations Cup (as it was known then) final against Tunisia, which Bafana won 2-0. Mark Thompson/Allsport

De Sà, who up until recently worked for the Qatar men's national team as first team coach under Carlos Queiroz, said: "It's very difficult to say that and to make comparisons on two teams that are 30 years apart.

"The game has changed vastly in the last 30 years. Players are different, there's different demands, it's become a lot more professional and there's a lot more facilities for the players than there were before.

"It's difficult to make those comparisons. Until they (the current players) achieve something, I will obviously back the '96 squad naturally."

Another former Bafana Bafana star, Matthew Booth, who played for the national team at centre-back between 1999 and 2010, by contrast, said that some players in the current squad are good enough to have competed for starting XI spots in 1996.

Booth said when asked who stood a chance of making the '96 team: "Ronwen Williams for one. Khuliso Mudau at right-back, Teboho Mokoena without a doubt, Themba Zwane, and I think [Evidence] Makgopa reminds me of the late, great Phil Masinga and I think if he does get an extended run at Pirates, he's a confidence player and he's a very good finisher.

"There's a number of others. Back in the day under Clive Barker, they did play in what seemed to be a 3-5-2, so depending on what formation you play, that's always taken into consideration, but certainly those players would be in that squad [or] knocking on the door of that squad."

Would Mamelodi Sundowns defender Khuliso Mudau be good enough to make the 1996 AFCON-winning team? DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

When pressed further on whether or not they would make the starting XI, Booth said: "It would be very difficult just from a generational point of view [and a] sports science point of view to actually say Khuliso Mudau would perhaps take the place of the late, great Sizwe Motaung, for example.

"They played in different positions - Sizwe as a right wing-back and Khuliso as a right-back in a back four, so it's a bit difficult to say, but let's just say that those players that I've mentioned would most likely be in the squad and definitely be strong contenders for a starting berth."

Whatever reservations he has about the idea of picking any current Bafana players over the 1996 squad, de Sà is full of praise for Broos.

The former Bafana Bafana goalkeeper coach said: "From what I've seen, he's his own man. He doesn't look too much into the big clubs or anything like that.

"He picks who he wants and that's positive. The team has definitely improved if I look at the last couple of years and just the fact that they've qualified is a big bonus."

Booth was similarly complimentary of Broos, although he took issue with the Belgian coach's outspokenness. Broos has publicly criticised the standard of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) and questioned the professionalism of some of his players.

Booth said: "I think things have definitely improved under his tenure. I think he got off to a rough start and I've been a little bit critical of his outspokenness and lack of sensitivity with a couple of players.

"But generally, when you are coach of a national team, it takes a longer time to settle in naturally because of the intermittent time that you have with players, and I think there's some form of consistency now developing within his team selections.

"Although there were a couple of players who could probably feel hard done by by not being included, I think he's generally got it right for the system he wants to be, which seems to be a 4-2-1-3.

"It's also nice to see the core of the team is based around [Mamelodi] Sundowns players. I think that will help the team going forward, just from the fact that a lot of those players have had experience on the continent. I think that bodes well for the national team."

De Sà also cited Sundowns' continental success as a reason for optimism about this Bafana squad, although Fish cautioned that fans should not read too much into their recent triumph in the African Football League (AFL), given that only eight teams participated.

"The AFL Cup was eight teams. It's eight countries. This is something completely different. Sundowns haven't won the African Champions League (since 2016), but we keep going by Sundowns dominating. This is the African Nations Cup," Fish said.

"We understand that we have a lot of players coming from [clubs in] South Africa that are representing Bafana Bafana. These other countries have a lot of players playing in Europe coming back to Africa to represent their countries."

Keywords: Africa Cup of Nations Ivory Coast AFCON

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