South Africa's '4x4s' have old score to settle with Nigeria in Afcon semi-final

Hugo Broos' underdogs will again look to upset the odds against arch rivals

South Africa's players celebrate after Teboho Mokoena, centre, scored the second goal in their 2-0 Africa Cup of Nations last-16 victory against Morocco. AFP
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Once upon a time, they were the “4x4s”. The nickname was not a compliment.

It attached itself to South Africa’s national football team because of a damning run of scorelines. Zimbabwe 4, South Africa 1, and, less than two months later, Nigeria 4, South Africa 0.

This was the early 1990s, a time of hope, with the country pushing towards democracy, Nelson Mandela its president-in-waiting and, among the dividends of a political journey out of a brutal system of government, apartheid, which disenfranchised the majority of citizens on the basis of race, was the end of international sporting sanctions against the country.

The national football team, previously banned from Fifa, were playing their first ever Africa Cup of Nations qualifier when they went, unsuccessfully, to Zimbabwe. The thrashing in Nigeria was on their maiden step into World Cup qualifying.

Players involved that day in Lagos recall the 4-0 vividly, how the home fans taunted the visitors by shouting “we kept it under five goals only because we love Mandela!”, and how the Nigerian senior players, Stephen Keshi and striker Rashidi Yekini, teased their opponents before dismantling them on a dry, sandy pitch.

“I was in the hotel lift with [teammate] Bennett Masinga, along with Keshi and Yekini,” remembers Neil Tovey, the South African captain at the time. “They stared down at Bennett, who was quite small, and said ‘Did you guys also bring your mascot?’”

More than three decades on, the rivalry remains as spiky, the superior bearing of Nigeria’s Super Eagles still a part of it. It’s a joust between the nations with the two biggest economies in sub-Saharan Africa played out in the continent’s most popular sport.

On Wednesday evening, in Bouake, Ivory Coast, the stakes are as high as they have been for a generation: a place in a Cup of Nations final.

The last time South Africa were so close was in Lagos 22 years ago, losing Afcon semi-finalists to eventual silver-medallists, Nigeria. Some of the original “4x4s” were in that side, although strengthened by experience and by a morale-boosting triumph at their own Afcon in 1996.

There, the shadow of Nigeria had also loomed. Following a political dispute over human rights violations in Nigeria, in which Mandela took a resonant stand, Nigeria’s Super Eagles had withdrawn at the 11th hour, from the 1996 Afcon.

Nigeria were reigning champions. There’s a belief, still, that had they been at the tournament, a squad good enough to win that year’s Olympic men’s football gold medal would have retained their African crown.

“It’s a big rivalry,” says Ronwen Williams, the South African captain, “but what’s happened in the past is in the past.”

Williams, 32, grew up watching steady decline. South Africa failed to even reach the finals tournament in five of the last nine Afcons. That makes them the surprise outsiders in the last four in Ivory Coast, where the host nation meet DR Congo in tonight’s other semi.

But the South Africans are rather enjoying their underdog role and even revisiting that old “4x4" tag.

They now count their blessings in units of four. It’s four clean sheets on the trot. Nobody has exceeded their 4-0 win over Namibia in the group phase as the highest margin of victory in a goal-rich tournament. Goalkeeper Williams made four saves from the five Cape Verdean spot-kicks in the shoot-out that settled Saturday’s quarter-final.

“Our defence has been rock solid,” said Williams, “and it’s not about me. We’ve defended as a team. You see our forward players and wingers working hard to assist us and the back four has been amazing.”

There may yet be good news for that back four. Nigeria, who last lifted the Cup of Nations in South Africa in 2013, have doubts over the fitness of centre-forward and African footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen.

The Napoli striker, the focus of Nigeria’s game plan, did not travel north from Abidjan to Bouake with the rest of the squad because he was suffering abdominal pain. His readiness to join his teammates was being monitored by medical staff.

“They’ve got a very good attack,” said Hugo Broos, South Africa’s manager, pointing out that Nigeria are potent without or without Osimhen. “There’s Ademola Lookman and Moses Simon, and for many people Nigeria will be the favourites.”

Lookman, the winger, has three goals in the knockout phase.

“None of the players will go out thinking ‘We’re favourites’,” insisted Jose Peseiro, Nigeria’s coach, warning that Morocco went into their last-16 tie against South Africa strongly tipped to progress and lost 2-0.

“They’re a strong side and they’ve been using seven or eight players from the same club [Mamelodi Sundowns], in a good South African league. That helps the organisation and it shows. They’re compact, they don’t allow you a lot of space.”

Updated: February 07, 2024, 2:46 AM