CAIRO (Reuters) – South Africa have the potential to shake off indifferent results of the last decade and re-emerge as a strong force at the Africa Cup of Nations, coach Stuart Baxter said on Sunday ahead of his side’s opening Group D fixture against the Ivory Coast.
“I think there may have been times before when South African national teams could be accused of not achieving what their potential deserved on the field, because of not having the right focus,” Baxter told a news conference before Monday’s game.
“But win, lose or draw, that will not be the case with this group of players. This group have a very small ego, and a very great South African heart.
“They enjoy playing for their country. And I’m sure that they are going to leave everything out there in every game.”
South Africa, who won the Cup of Nations at the first attempt in 1996 but have not been able to replicate that success, are participating in their 10th tournament but have only made it out of the group phase once since the 2002 finals.
They did not qualify for the 2017 tournament after being foiled by lightweights like the Gambia and Mauritania in their qualifying group. In the 2019 qualifiers they were unbeaten but still had a nervy campaign before finishing behind Nigeria.
The Ivory Coast are a stiff test to start, Baxter conceded.
“We’re playing against the best teams on the continent, in what we could say is a heavy group, but we feel the way to not be intimidated is to pay them the respect that they deserve but not fear them,” he added.
“We have to be better than they think, quicker than they expect and better organised than they anticipate. If we can do that, then I think they will then have to rethink their game plan.
“That’s the only way you can do it, you can’t sit back and hope they going to make a few mistakes, because once their machine is rolling then it’s difficult to stop them.
“So, we’ve got to respect what they do, but also make sure they have to deal with something that we can do.”
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Christian Radnedge)