Neil Tovey and Mark Williams, key figures when South Africa won their lone Africa Cup of Nations title, believe defeating 2024 semi-final opponents Nigeria will be “tough”.
Bafana Bafana (The Boys) and the Super Eagles meet in the central Ivory Coast city of Bouake on Wednesday with a place in the February 11 final on the line.
Nigeria are favourites for several reasons, including a perfect past record against South Africa in the competition with three victories.
The West Africans won a 2000 semi-final in Nigeria 2-0, a 2004 group match in Tunisia 4-0 and a 2019 quarter-final in Egypt 2-1 through a late goal from current captain William Troost-Ekong.
But South Africa, whose starting line-up includes nine locals, one player based in Egypt and another with a Portuguese second-division club, are not without hope, insist Tovey and Williams.
Central defender Tovey captained the 1996 title-winning team and forward Williams came off the bench to score twice within two minutes and sink Tunisia 2-0 in the final in Johannesburg.
Victory for Bafana came one year after the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup and South Africans basked in the sporting successes two years after the collapse of apartheid.
“It is going to be very tough against Nigeria – a final before the final,” Tovey told AFP in a telephone interview from the South African port city of Durban.
“We have suffered many defeats against them, starting with a four-goal mauling in a 1994 World Cup qualifier. More recently, however, the tide has begun to turn.
– Riddled with upsets –
“What we dare not do in Bouake is retreat into a defensive shell. That would be playing into the hands of the Nigerians.
“South Africa must approach the match in a similar manner to the game against Morocco – defend in depth when necessary but also apply pressure.”
In a tournament riddled with upsets, one of the biggest was South Africa winning 2-0 against 2022 World Cup semi-finalists Morocco in a last-16 encounter.
Tovey says he is impressed with South Africa, who have reached the Cup of Nations semi-finals for the first time since the loss to co-hosts Nigeria 24 years ago.
“They are not trying to be clever – they are well organised and perform the basics well. Every player understands his role.
“Take the crucial final group match against Tunisia, which could have eliminated Bafana had they lost. It ended 0-0, but I was impressed with our game management.”
Johannesburg-based Williams told AFP he was struck by the team spirit of South Africa, who have not conceded in four matches since losing their opener 2-0 to Mali.
“Having eight Mamelodi Sundowns players in the starting lineup helps a lot. You can see the players know each other very well.
“When you have a mix of local and foreign-based players there can be initial misunderstandings. Also, (Egypt-based) Percy Tau is a former Sundowns star.
“Make no mistake, it is not going to be easy against Nigeria. They have always had extremely skillful players and the likes of (Victor) Osimhen and (Ademola) Lookman are continuing the tradition.
“But our boys, although not as well known, are also skillful. Mentality is key – we have to walk onto the pitch believing we are going to win.”
Both Tovey and Williams say the Ivory Coast will overcome the Democratic Republic of Congo in the later semi-final on Wednesday in Abidjan.