For the second time in three years, South Africa have been gifted a place in a major tournament. They haven't actually qualified for Africa Cup of Nations since 2008, and they haven't made the knockout stage since 2000. Can they finally stop underachieving?
A huge and diverse population, a strong national league and the best stadiums on the continent have yet to help South Africa emerge into an African footballing power. They should be competitive with the likes of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, regularly vying for Africa Cup of Nations honors and World Cup qualification, but they simply aren't. Their resources and solid raw talent haven't translated into any degree of success.
They're in this edition of the Africa Cup of Nations for the same reason they were in the 2010 World Cup: Automatic qualification as the hosts. They've failed to qualify for the last two editions of the tournament, just like they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. The nation has taken an incredible step backwards in their footballing progressions since their 1996 Africa Cup of Nations triumph and their qualification for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
There's no time like the present for South Africa to stop underachieving. Between their fairly weak group and their home-crowd advantage, there's not really any excuse for failing to make the quarterfinals. Since this is one of the weakest Africa Cup of Nations fields ever -- thanks to the rushed qualifying format -- there's actually not any excuse for them failing to make the semifinals. A loss to anyone but Ghana, the Ivory Coast or Zambia should probably be considered an utter failure.
By this point, the strike pairing of Bernard Parker and Katlego Mphela should have a bit of chemistry. Thulani Serero and Siphiwe Tshabalala should provide them with plenty of service. The central defense pairing of Bongani Khumalo and Siyabonga Sangweni is, at worst, adequate. Itumeleng Khune stacks up against any keeper in the tournament. Their center of midfield could be better, but Kagisho Dikgacoi is having a very good season for Crystal Palace. The ingredients are there for a successful run.
However, it's tough for those who don't follow the South African Premiership closely to know exactly what kind of depth this team has. Considering that a number of star players for other teams ply their trade in that league, they should have the quality to match up against anyone but the truly elite sides in this competition, but it's tough to make a judgment on that without watching all of their players on a week-in, week-out basis.
Their biggest deficiency as a side, creativity through the middle, is a problem that many African sides have. Their wingers and center forwards are going to have to do all of the creating, which might be a problem against group-mates Morocco, who have arguably the best central defender in Africa in 6'3" Mehdi Benatia. Cape Verde's central defenders aren't exactly short or inexperienced either. Tshabalala's crosses will have to be more than simple hopeful lofted balls into the box for South Africa to score.
As strong as South Africa will be attacking down the flanks, they could have issues defending the flanks. They drew 0-0 against Algeria in their warm-up friendly for the tournament, but their main source of creativity comes from their No. 10 Sofiane Feghouli, not their flanks. Foued Kadir and Hameur Bouazza make up one of the weakest pairs of wingers in the tournament. Angola's Djalma, Morocco's Oussama Assaidi and Cape Verde's Ryan Mendes should present a bit more of a challenge.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2)
GK Itumeleng Khune, LB Thabo Matlaba, CB Bongani Khumalo, CB Siyabonga Sangweni, RB Anele Ngcongca, LM Siphiwe Tshabalala, CM Kagisho Dikgacoi, CM Dean Furman, RM Thulani Serero, ST Bernard Parker, ST Katlego Mphela
Siphiwe Tshabalala: Dikagcoi and Furman aren't playmakers, and neither Parker or Mphela is a superstar. They're both physically talented guys who can finish, but neither is going to take over a game without any service or create for their teammates. Bafana Bafana's main creative outlet is going to come down the wings, and Tshabalala is their best. If he's not beating his defender down the flank and putting quality service into the box, South Africa will struggle to score.
Quarterfinalists: Call it a hunch: The Democratic Republic of the Congo sneaks second in Group B, setting up a pretty rough matchup for South Africa. Yossuf Mulumbu and Dieumerci Mbokani would be too much for Bafana Bafana to deal with through the center, if that happened. South Africa bows out after another disappointing tournament.