Abidjan — Serial Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) underachievers South Africa are under immense pressure to excel at the 2024 tournament in the Ivory Coast, says star forward Percy Tau.
The 1996 champions face fellow former title-holders Tunisia, and Mali and Namibia in Group E in Korhogo, the northernmost of five host cities.
It is widely considered the most intriguing of the six first-round mini-leagues with pundits uncertain which two teams will automatically qualify for the knockout stage.
The sole area of agreement is that Namibia, without a win from three previous tournament appearances, are likely to finish last and be eliminated.
While Tunisia and Mali have been consistent performers at the marquee African football event, South African fans refuse to accept that Bafana Bafana (The Boys) may be early casualties.
“It is extremely difficult for us to satisfy the public – we are under immense pressure,” Tau told reporters after a training session in the Western Cape university town of Stellenbosch.
Striker Percy Tau has doubled down on his stance that Bafana Bafana have what it takes to be strong contenders in the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations.
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“We aim to be among the best teams in Africa, but it just has not happened for some time,” added the winger from Egyptian and African giants Al Ahly.
“Supporters were furious with us for not even reaching the last Cup of Nations in Cameroon two years ago.
“They are demanding that we bring the trophy back from the Ivory Coast. Obviously, that is the goal of the players too, but it is going to be extremely difficult.
“Getting past the first round will be tough enough, then teams face four knockout matches to win the competition.”
‘We must be realistic’
Captain and goalkeeper Ronwen Williams echoed the views of Tau, whose dribbling skills regularly unlock even the tightest club and national team defences across Africa.
“While needing to aim high, we must also be realistic. We have not been regular Cup of Nations qualifiers for a long time,” said Williams.
“The intensity of the tournament is going to be a real challenge. Every three or four days you are facing top-quality opponents.
“It can drain you mentally and physically. Experience is also crucial and, unfortunately, there are only three survivors from the squad that competed at the 2019 tournament.”
After becoming only the third country after Egypt and Ghana to be crowned African champions at the first attempt, South Africa have regressed dramatically.
Having finished first, second and third in their first three Cup of Nations appearances, South Africa did not even qualify for four of the past seven tournaments.
Many South Africans are pinning their hopes of a major turnaround on Belgian coach Hugo Broos, who defied the odds by guiding Cameroon to the 2017 title.
[WATCH] Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos says that he knew when he announced his final squad that there would be criticism. This is as the team departs for #AFCON2023 in Ivory Coast. #Newzroom405 pic.twitter.com/YNskVre4Be
— Newzroom Afrika (@Newzroom405) January 11, 2024
“It is a totally different tournament from Europe because of its intensity. All the teams are 500 percent motivated,” says the 71-year-old former Belgium World Cup defender.
Tunisia captain Youssef Msakni is set the make a record-equalling eighth Cup of Nations tournament appearance and his five qualifying goals smoothed the path to the finals.
Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Yves Bissouma is the standout performer for Mali, who can realistically expect to improve on last-16 exits from the last two editions.
Namibian hopes of ending a nine-match winless run from 1998 rest heavily on captain Peter Shalulile, a consistent scorer with South African champions Mamelodi Sundowns.
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