Afcon 2023: Cohesive South Africa stand between Morocco and quarter-final berth

Walid Regragui's team take on one of the best sides in Africa that has players who compete together at club level

South Africa's Thapelo Maseko celebrates scoring their fourth goal against Namibia. Reuters
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Last June, their place at the finals of the Africa Cup of Nations finals already assured, Morocco travelled the length of their continent to play South Africa. Their hosts had also sealed qualification, but still a healthy crowd gathered at Soccer City, on the outskirts of Soweto.

A shade under 60,000 were there, a number reflecting what a visit by Morocco has come to mean. They are African football’s frontiersmen, a star turn, the only country to have penetrated what, until late 2022, had been Africa’s World Cup glass ceiling, stubbornly set at the quarter-finals.

When the Atlas Lions reached the semis in Qatar, there was, from Cape Town to Cairo, a shared glee at the achievement.

In the thin winter air of Soweto, Morocco lost 2-1. That result is a feather in the cap of the South Africans, even if the stakes that day were moderate, with everybody’s Afcon tickets secured already. Morocco’s head coach, Walid Regragui, detected a shortfall in “intensity”, but he acknowledged conditions were the same for both sides.

“South Africa deserved their victory,” he admitted, and, looking ahead to the Afcon, now under way in Ivory Coast, added: “I think they can be a big surprise. They have good players from Mamelodi Sundowns, who play in a good domestic league.”

Many of those good players, from the leading club in South Africa’s league, are the barrier between Morocco and an Afcon quarter-final.

The Sundowns factor weighs on the tie. Only 18 months ago, after all, Regragui’s job was to be concerned more about Sundowns than any national team.

He had just guided WAC, Wydad of Casablanca, to the African Champions League title, and knew well that, outside of North Africa, there is one pre-eminent club challenging the hierarchy of the club game on the continent. It is the men from Mamelodi. When the inaugural African Football League, a sort of Super League for Africa, pitched WAC against Sundowns in its final in November, Sundowns triumphed over two legs.

How much relevance that has to Tuesday's last-16 Afcon tie between Morocco and South Africa in San Pedro is the issue teasing at Regragui as he prepares the next step in what he hopes will be a journey to Morocco’s first Afcon title for 48 years.

It is a contest to test how far expatriate expertise and the gathered experience of club football in elite European leagues trumps the standards of one the best, wealthiest clubs in Africa.

Part of Regragui’s achievement, since being headhunted from WAC to coach Morocco, has been in building belief in his vision from players drawn from across the Moroccan diaspora, many born outside the country, some dual nationals who had the opportunity to represent European countries.

His side’s pillars are from Paris Saint-Germain, in Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi, and Manchester United, in Netherlands-born Sofyan Amrabat; and, but for fitness concerns that may exclude Noussair Mazraoui and Hakim Ziyech from the last-16 contest, you could add Bayern Munich and Galatasaray to that list of employers.

South Africa’s squad has far less global reach. Neither of the centre-forwards, Burnley’s Lyle Foster and Strasbourg’s Lebo Mothiba, who might have given head coach Hugo Broos some Premier League or Ligue 1 punch, were available for Afcon. The strength of the South Africans is, rather, in the cohesiveness of individuals who work together week in, week out – at Sundowns.

There are nine Sundowns players in the South African squad, footballers who know each other’s strengths and instincts intimately. They know how to win in Africa, too, to negotiate tough knockout games there, at least at club level.

Eight of the Sundowns cohort started the last Afcon group game, where a 0-0 draw effectively sent one North African team – Tunisia – home from a competition that has been brutal on the countries from the Mediterranean region so far.

The ninth, the winger Thapelo Maseko, came on as a substitute, a 20-year-old thrilled to be at his first major international event, and delighted to have notched his first goal for his country in the 4-0 win over Namibia that eased Broos’s concerns after South Africa lost their opening group match to Mali.

In that fixture, Broos was candid about his side’s shortcomings: they were second best in physical duels – their key non-Sundowns player, Al Ahly’s Percy Tau also missed a penalty – and Broos was not giving too much away when he said that is not a new weakness.

“The Malian team have a lot of power and that's not a South African strength. South Africa does not have those type of players.”

But cede them too much possession, and the skill on the ball, the technique of the likes of Sundowns’ Themba Zwane, give them the tools to compensate.

“They have very good technical players,” said Regragui, while regretting the absence of some of his leading technicians. Sofiane Boufal, the winger, is “out of Afcon”, Regragui thinks, because of injury.

Ziyech, with a tender ankle, will only take part “if we feel we need to risk it.”

Updated: January 30, 2024, 3:31 AM