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South Africa - still the team to beat

Last week I thought I was done with commenting on Afcon 2013 until the competition started.

Last Wednesday night’s result between Zambia and South Africa has brought me back to it.

Zambia handed South Africa a shocking 1- 0 pre-Afcon gift in Johannesburg. Many people are already calling for my head for daring to dream that Bafana Bafana will win the coveted trophy. In short, I should go bury my head for daring to suggest that South Africa will win the championship.

Well, I have news for all cynics and skeptics. I am now even more convinced than before about the team that will likely be champions of Afcon 2013. Having finally watched and seen the Zambians play, now I know better.

Football is a 'crazy' game. Were it not so, why would I, after last Wednesday's match, still even be contemplating the possibility of Bafana Bafana winning the Africa Cup of Nations when Zambia taught them some useful lessons in football would also be participating? But I am.

I am a Nigerian, a proud one at that. Ordinarily, for patriotic reasons alone, I should be dreaming and 'seeing' the Super Eagles lifting the African trophy. Indeed, I want them to make me eat my words and win it. I am going to give them any and all the metaphysical support I can muster. But, my head still tells me otherwise.

Back to the Zambia versus South Africa match. I agree entirely with all those who may now have written off the South Africans as possible champions. Last Wednesday they simply did not give anyone the confidence to think otherwise.

Just to show you how crazy football can be, let me tell you this story.

In 1996, on the eve of the Atlanta Olympics, the national Under-23 team of Nigeria, including all the great names in Nigerian football at the time, played its last international friendly match against a team that had never beaten Nigeria before in any competition and at any level - Togo. The match was even played at the main bowl of the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, a venue that was dreaded by all visiting teams.

Never had a Nigerian team played more badly. The Eagles floundered badly.

Playing on a bad turf and with the arrogant attitude that all they needed to do was march onto the field and victory would be achieved, the Eagles put up a performance that left their supporters covering their heads in disbelief. So poor was the performance and so scandalous the result, a 3-1 loss, that the players walked off the field to the boos of the own crowd, with their heads bowed and their tails tucked between their legs, every hope lost that anything good could come out of Atlanta '96. No one gave them the least chance any longer. The rest of the team's preparations and even departure were completed without much interest by Nigerians.

Less than one month later, that same team, with the same set of players, with the same coach, unheralded and disregarded, stunned the entire world. They started and ended their campaign at the Olympics like a team possessed, putting up some of the best attacking football ever by any Nigerian national team. It was simply unbelievable.

Nigerians could not believe their eyes when the lads marched out and started to play their hearts out. They probably were not the strongest team at Atlanta '96, but they played without the usual debilitating pressure of bloated expectations and against opponents that under-rated them because of their well-advertised, poor, pre-competition performances.

Instead, they were lifted by the singing and drumming of mostly USA-based Nigerian supporters plus the large population of Americans who had come to watch great football and to support teams that entertained them.

The rest of the story is now history. The Eagles not only played brilliantly throughout, they defeated two of the best teams in the world at the time (Brazil and Argentina) in a manner that left the world dazed and baffled at their complete transformation. Since then I have learnt never to underestimate the power of a 'wake-up call' for teams that have glaring pre-championship advantages.

South Africa are is not in the same kind of position or situation that Nigeria was in 1996, but they were jolted in the same manner as Nigeria was by their own poor performance last Wednesday night. That is the essential tonic the team needs to wake them up.

The South African team obviously does not have the player quality and quantity to restore confidence in people that it can win only through the strength of its performance. The team has other things going for it: the advantage of playing at home; the advantage of playing in a relatively easy group at the start of the championship, which will help it gain confidence and improve through the first round matches; the advantage of guaranteed boisterous and loud support; and, finally, the advantage of the absence of debilitating, pressure-cooker tension that would have existed. It is that poor performance that will jolt, challenge and lift Bafana Bafana to the unexpected possibility of winning the African championship.

The Chipolopolo put up a performance last Wednesday that confirms they are still one of the favourites of Afcon 2013. No team will now treat them with disrespect. Their every match will now be a bruising battle.

So, let me remind readers again about what happened one year ago at Afcon 2012. With all of Zambia's inspiring performances throughout the championship the team still needed some divine intervention to survive two critical, nail-biting matches that made them champions. They could very easily have lost either of the matches and no one would have complained!

The gods have a way of sharing their 'lucky portion' during every championship. They hardly ever remain with one team for long. Check the records. This time if Zambia would win the championship they would have to do so on their own strength, without the help of the gods! That’s going to be a tough call.

Finally, it may not make any sense now, but I can still hear the voices ringing in my ears: Bafana Bafana!

I promise not to comment on Afcon 2013 again until the eve of the championship. There are many other things to talk about until then. One is who should be Africa's Footballer of 2012. I will make my academic pick when next you read me.

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