South Africa were able to reach the quarter-final stage of the tournament after sealing a 2-2 draw in a scintillating tie against Morocco, silencing their critics and finishing top of Group A.
Determined to win over their country’s support and a fan base which has been disappointed for a decade, Bafana Bafana showed a fighting spirit which has led to a burgeoning of praise and belief in a side which many had written off before the tournament began.
Gordon Igesund’s influence has certainly been one of the defining factors behind the host’s new-found confidence in front of goal, but their strength in defence will be tested by their quarter-final opponents.
Bafana set up a clash against Mali, a side also committed to providing their fans with something to hold on to and cherish, during one of the country’s most difficult periods in their history in the form of a bloody and destructive civil war which has torn the Eagles’ homeland to shreds.
Football’s ability to heighten spirits and build national pride will be put to the test on Saturday night, as both sides will be motivated to win, but for vastly different reasons.
Bafana Bafana have been boosted by the news of Lehlonoholo Majoro’s recovery from an injury he sustained against Angola, but will have to play without regular starter Anele Ngongca, who has been suspended for the clash due to an accumulation of yellow cards.
Kaizer Chiefs full-back Siboniso Gaxa is likely to be handed a start on Saturday and is the obvious replacement for Ngongca due to his international experience and current form.
South Africa has been successful when pushing forward and focusing on using their faster players such as Tokelo Rantie, Bernard Parker and Thuso Phala. They will face a side which plays a slower brand of football, as Mali will look to control the game and manoeuvre their way towards goal, utilising their physicality and technical ability.
The Eagles enter into the match with a full squad at their disposal, with captain Seydou Keita aiming to inspire his team in attack once again. Keita has called upon his team-mates to win the Africa Cup of Nations for the embattled nation.
“This qualification will also give a lot of joy to our country. Giving hope to the country has been priceless,” Keita told reporters.
“There is a crisis in Mali and I did my best to give hope to those who are suffering. We have made an effort to help, but money doesn’t matter. You can’t imagine what it means to play for Mali at this time. I told my government they could reduce our bonuses. My priority is to play for my country.”
The interesting clash of styles should provide the sell-out Moses Mabhida crowd with an intriguing battle and the winner of the match will have to face an even greater test, a semi-final against Cote d’Ivoire or Nigeria.
Masilela, Khumalo, Sangweni, Gaxa
Phala, Furman, Mahlangu, Parker
Coulibaly, Tamboura, Diawara, Traore
Diabate, Maiga, Diarra