Bafana: Most crucial game in over 20 years

Cape Town - In the neutral venue of Tunisia's picturesque Mediterranean port town of Sfax, whose origins go back to the times of the Roman Empire in 849 AD, Bafana Bafana will next Sunday face the foreboding  possibility of plunging South African soccer back to its lowest ebb in more than 20 years if they lose their Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Libya.

And, because of this, many believe it to be South African soccer's most vital encounter since the late, cancer-stricken Phil 'Chippa' Masinga scored his legendary, 30-metre goal that effectively enabled Bafana to beat Congo at FNB Stadium and qualify for a first-ever World Cup Finals tournament in France in 1998 - and reach a best-ever world ranking of 16th.

In a nutshell, Bafana need only avoid defeat against the canny Libyans to supplant their opponents as one of the 24 qualifiers for the 2019 AFCON Finals in Egypt in June - and this obviously corresponds to an advantage against opponents who need a victory to make it to the continent's most prestigious tournament.

This alone denotes a good degree for explaining the importance of the occasion at the neutral and relatively compact home of Tunisian club FC Sfaxien, which holds approximately 25 000 spectators and has been designated by CAF as the venue because of the simmering outbreak of violence in neighbouring Libya itself.

But for 74th world-ranked South African soccer in a wider sense it has distinctly greater importance and significance in view of Bafana's heady days between 1996 and the turn of the century now long since a thing of the past, with the country failing to qualify for the World Cup Finals since 2002 - competing in the 2010 event only because of a host nation status and then creating the dubious record of becoming the first home team ever to be eliminated in the opening round segment - and not as much as making it to the last two AFCON Finals either.

SAFA and its president, Danny Jordaan, have in recent years used the smokescreen propaganda of what has been termed a "Vision 2022" project that will, like Houdini's magic, result in everything falling uncannily into place at the designated time for what remains irrevocably the flagship and overriding denominator of South African soccer.

But Bafana's qualification for this year's AFCON, as the minimum requirement, has seemingly surfaced as a moment of truth for embattled SAFA and the failure of Bafana to achieve this could well herald a crisis - not only for coach Stuart Baxter about which the hungry, uninformed detractors, like wolves at his door, are already and predictably baying with a degree of glee, but for the national body in its entirety.

So what are the prospects of Bafana achieving their objective  in a country known for producing phosphate and olives at the borrowed Stade Taieb Mhiri venue and in a climate and environment that might better suit their opponents?

Well the squad named by Baxter earlier in the week has been well formulated and looks sufficiently talented to avoid what would be a dreaded defeat, with SAFA a little belatedly demonstrating a sense of urgency of the match by arranging for the Bafana squad to travel to Tunisia an unprecedented week before the Libya game.

But on occasions like this temperament and a strong nerve could be the deciding factors in front of a largely hostile crowd, many of whom may have travelled the 270km from their homes in Libya.

BAFANA BAFANA SQUAD:

Goalkeepers

Darren Keet (Wits), Ronwen Williams (Supersport United), Bruce Bvuma (Kaizer Chiefs)

Defenders

Daniel Cardoso (Kaizer Chiefs), Rivaldo Coetzee (Mamelodi Sundowns), Aubrey Modiba (SuperSport United), Thulani Hlatshwayo, Buhle Mkhwanazi, Sfiso Hlanti (Wits), Innocent Maela (Orlando Pirates), Thamsanqa Mkhize (Cape Town City)

Midfielders

Bongani Zungu (France, Amiens), Hlompho Kekana, Themba Zwane, Tiyani Mabunda (Mamelodi Sundowns), Dean Furman (SuperSport United), Kamohelo Mokotjo (England, Brentford), Thulani Serero (Netherlands, Vitesse FC), Thembinkosi Lorch (Orlando Pirates)

Forwards

Lebo Mothiba (France, Strasbourg), Percy Tau (Belgium, Royal Union Saint), Lars Veldwijk (Netherlands, Sparta Rotterdam), Lebogang Maboe (Mamelodi Sundowns), Keagan Dolly (France, Montpellier)