PORT ELIZABETH, November 11, South Africa – Top-ranked African team Ivory Coast defend a perfect record this year when they confront South Africa for the Nelson Mandela Challenge here Saturday.
An Ivorian Elephants squad packed with familiar English Premier League names have defeated Benin twice, Rwanda and Burundi in 2012 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and Mali and Israel in friendlies.
Now brothers Kolo and Yaya Toure of Manchester City, Gervinho of Arsenal and Salomon Kalou of Chelsea plus stars from other European leagues have their sights on a first victory over Bafana Bafana (The Boys).
South Africa have triumphed once and drawn three times in Cup of Nations and friendly encounters with Ivory Coast since 1994 when they fought to a goalless stalemate in this Eastern Cape Indian Ocean city.
That match was played at Boet Erasmus Stadium — a rugby union Test venue that has witnessed some epic Springbok struggles down the decades — but this weekend 2010 World Cup venue Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium plays host.
Ivory Coast coach Francois Zahoui is conscious of avoiding injuries with the Cup of Nations tournament just over two months away and his team favourites once again to raise a trophy that has eluded the West African country for 19 years.
“I have bad memories of the Mali game as we had several players injured. Some games that we played this year were not friendly and I do not want to go to the Cup of Nations without any of my stars,” he stressed.
Local officials are hoping for a capacity 45,000 crowd despite the absence of leading Ivorian drawcard Didier Drogba as the two-time African Footballer of the Year is recovering after surgery to remove screws from a previous arm operation.
It will be interesting to see how the South African football public react after a Cup of Nations debacle last month that robbed Bafana Bafana of a place at the 2012 showpiece in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Players, coaches and officials believed goal difference decided final places on the standings, but the head-to-head rule applied and outsiders Niger grabbed top spot.
The aftermath of a goalless home draw with Sierra Leone was farcical with players dancing in ‘celebration’ while coach Pitso Mosimane, who confessed to playing for a point long before the final whistle, sought clarity on the rules.
Public broadcaster SABC added to the confusion as its commentators also got it wrong by claiming South Africa had qualified and some time elapsed before the unpalatable truth filtered through.
Critics did not spare Bafana with the mass-circulation Sunday Times labelling the players “sorry excuses for stars who crisscross the country in top-of-the-range cars chasing the tiniest mini skirt.
“If they showed half the commitment when wearing national colours they would not be failing trials in obscure leagues. The time for serious introspection by our overrated underachievers is now.”
Former national team striker Mosimane, whose biggest challenge is an attack that managed a meagre four goals in six Cup of Nations qualifiers, has pleaded for the team and the public to move on after ‘Rulesgate’.
But that means winning matches and it is difficult to see where the threats to the Kolo Toure-marshalled Ivory Coast defence are going to come from with leading scorer Katlego Mphela not netting regularly on the domestic front.
A boost for South Africa is the return of captain and Tottenham Hotspur wide midfielder Steven Pienaar, who missed a loss in Niger and the Sierra Leone draw because of a niggling groin injury.