Abidjan — While most teams at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) rely heavily on players based in Europe, South Africa stand out in having an almost entirely home-based squad with coach Hugo Broos leaning heavily on the Mamelodi Sundowns side that dominates domestically.
Ten members of the Bafana Bafana squad preparing to take on Cape Verde in the quarter-finals in Ivorian capital Yamoussoukro on Saturday have come from Sundowns, the Pretoria club nicknamed the Brazilians.
Eight started in the 2-0 win over Morocco in the last 16, including captain and goalkeeper Ronwen Williams, and the outstanding midfielder Teboho Mokoena, who scored their second goal.
The only other competing nation that really came close was Egypt, but they still had a significant sprinkling of foreign-based stars beyond talisman Mohamed Salah.
Hugo Broos on reaching the last-16 with 20 players from the 🇿🇦 #DStvPrem#AFCON2023 pic.twitter.com/MctCx3R4h7
— Lorenz Köhler (@Lorenz_KO) January 26, 2024
It is something that gives South Africa coach Broos an obvious advantage over many of his counterparts, who saw most of their players leave their clubs in the middle of the European season and have just a few days to train together before the AFCON began.
“When you watch these guys play you can tell they have been playing together for a while,” former Cameroon defender Aurelien Chedjou, who played under Broos for the Indomitable Lions, told broadcaster Canal Plus Afrique.
“They can find each other almost with their eyes closed and that makes a difference.”
The veteran Belgian Broos, who turns 72 in April, is now hoping to lead South Africa into the AFCON semi-finals for the first time since they finished third in 2000.
It is quite a turnaround from their inability to even qualify for the last Cup of Nations, a failure which led to Broos being appointed.
Broos really has no choice but to rely on a core of Sundowns players, given how few leading South Africans play abroad.
Percy Tau of Egyptian giants Al Ahly has the highest profile, and the little forward is a former Sundowns player, featuring in the team that won the CAF Champions League in 2016.
Beyond him there is Lyle Foster of English Premier League side Burnley, but the striker was left out of the squad due to mental health issues.
Sundowns, who were bought two decades ago by current Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe, have won six consecutive South African titles.
They are currently well on course to make that seven, as they sit nine points clear at the top of the table. In addition to that, they won the inaugural African Football League in November, defeating Wydad Casablanca in the final.
They are coached by the very highly-rated Rulani Mokwena, who having only just turned 37 is from a different generation to Broos.
Friction has appeared between them, with Mokwena not happy when one of his many international stars returns injured from Bafana Bafana duty.
ALSO READ | Nigeria and South Africa among quarter-finals favourites in ‘crazy’ AFCON
“The coach of Sundowns, he is the local Mourinho. He has won a lot of trophies, he pretends to be God and everyone listens to what he says,” Broos told South African media at the start of the AFCON.
Against Morocco, South Africa’s entire back four in front of Williams were all Sundowns players. Mokoena patrolled the midfield, with Thapelo Morena and the veteran Themba Zwane completing the Sundowns contingent.
South Africans used to watching the Sundowns stars playing their sophisticated brand of football – Mokwena has cited Brighton and Hove Albion manager Roberto de Zerbi as an influence – may feel entitled to have big expectations of their team at this Cup of Nations.
Broos does not have the same methods as Mokwena, but the man who led Cameroon to unexpected AFCON glory in 2017 is now hoping to do the same with South Africa.
“I got a lot of critics in South Africa at certain moments because of the choices I made, but I knew what I was doing,” Broos insisted after the Morocco victory.
“I know the results have to follow. And even with local players, now you see they play on that high level. When they have the confidence, they can do it.”
Follow African Insider on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram
For more African news, visit Africaninsider.com