Blurring boundaries with Bafana Bafana
As Zambia celebrated African Nations Cup glory on an emotional night in Libreville last February, Oldham Athletic's Dean Furman was sitting at home reflecting on a postponed League One away day at Brentford. Almost 4,000 miles separated the clement climate of Gabon from the cold chill of Griffin Park, with Furman a world away from the continent of his birth.
Eleven months later, Furman stands on South African soil, back in his motherland and with his eyes fixed on inspiring an African Nations Cup triumph as unlikely as Zambia's in 2012.
From Boundary Park to Bafana Bafana, it's been a remarkable year for a midfielder who only made his international debut in September. New coach Gordon Igesund marked his first game in charge by handing Furman his South Africa bow in a setting that most players can only dream of: against football behemoths Brazil, in Sao Paulo.
"The call-up really came out of the blue. I got a phone call from Gordon Igesund and he told me he was having a look at me, had watched a few DVDs of me and that he was considering putting me in the squad for his next games," Furman recalls to ESPN. "A few weeks later I got the fax through from the South African Football Association (SAFA) saying that I was selected to play in the games against Brazil and Mozambique, which was an incredible moment for me. Being called up for my country and being involved in any game was a special occasion but to play away in Brazil was a massive added bonus and it will live with me for a long, long time."
Furman won plaudits for his performances against Brazil and Mozambique, though it had been predicted he would struggle to fit in with his team-mates, whose backgrounds differed greatly from the new arrival. But despite possessing an English accent - developed after his parents emigrated to London with their five-year-old son in the early 1990s - that belies his heritage, Furman's sporting allegiance was never in doubt. If there were any questions raised publicly about his commitment to the cause, the former Chelsea trainee's all-action style on the pitch emphatically answered them.
Behind the scenes in the dressing-room, Furman insists he was fully embraced by his comrades as one of their own, with his very presence as a white, Jewish player in South Africa's squad reflecting the 'Rainbow Nation' ideal that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela once prophesised.
"Of course it's hard coming from the outside, just like in any walk of life," Furman says. "But the boys all got behind me - although I've spent most of my life in England, I've always been true to my roots. I know where I'm from and I've been back here numerous times; a lot of my family still live here and a lot of the South African traditions are within my family. I'm very proud to be playing for the nation of my birth. I've always followed South Africa in other sports and there's nothing better than when they're playing England in any sport because there's a great bit of rivalry with the lads at Oldham in training.
"The way football works you see that when the ball comes out, any differences between you - what you look like, where you live or where you're from - are forgotten and you put everything in for your team-mates and your country. We get behind each other and work for each other, everyone has been great to me since day one. I was fortunate that before the Brazil call-up I was involved in a squad when Bafana played Australia in England in 2008 and there are still some players who were involved. I was familiar with quite a few of the boys and they have made me feel very welcome."
Furman recognises he was fortunate to enjoy a football education more privileged than most of his South Africa team-mates. Having honed his trade at Chelsea from the age of nine - he played under Brendan Rodgers in Chelsea's talented youth and reserve teams - a two-year spell at Rangers followed but a lack of first-team football led to him seeking solace in a loan move to Bradford. An impressive season prompted interest from Oldham and the midfielder has been a mainstay at Boundary Park since 2009. The South Africa call-up threw a spanner in the works to life at Oldham, bringing with it a conundrum that few League one clubs are forced to solve as Furman sought to balance international and club commitments.
"Oldham have been supportive and proud to have me playing international football but the flipside is that we don't get international breaks," Furman explains. "I have missed games and obviously with AFCON I'm missing almost a month, which for a small club like Oldham is tough as we need all the players that we can available. They're not too pleased I'm away for such a long period but I said from the outset that if my country comes calling I will always answer that call, so they respect it and they wish me well.
"I love playing for both Oldham and South Africa, though there were some culture shocks when playing for Bafana. Before games there is a party type of atmosphere and a very traditional South African sort of atmosphere in the dressing room. We do a lot of singing and a lot of dancing, clapping hands - stuff that I don't think would ever take place in the Boundary Park dressing room! It gives you an uplifting spirit for the game, though - it gets you psyched up. It's great to watch and I'm trying to learn the words to some of the songs and get involved myself."
South Africa's only previous taste of African Nations Cup silverware came on home soil in 1996, when the country followed on from the success of hosting the Rugby World Cup seven months earlier to underline their sporting prowess in the post-apartheid era. That desire to prove their powers to the world still exists; there have been concerns raised about the lack of ticket sales and the withdrawal of legislative capital Cape Town as a host city, but as Bafana Bafana's 1995 vintage and the Zambian side of 2012 showed, the continental showpiece can be a cauldron of unpredictability.
And having watched on from British shores as South Africa wowed onlookers with a show-stopping World Cup that defied expectations in 2010, Furman believes the incentive is there again for the host nation to upset the odds on the pitch as well as off it.
"Lots of my family were at games in 2010 and they said the atmosphere was incredible - I wish I could have been there. There were some amazing performances from Bafana - obviously that first goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala lit up the World Cup and it's something we're looking to emulate this time around. It was a party atmosphere two-and-a-half years ago, the stadiums were packed, the vuvuzelas were in full swing. It captured the nation's imagination and it's something I've always dreamed of experiencing. Now I'm lucky enough to get the opportunity in AFCON.
"We've been to a few functions with the fans in recent days and the support has been unbelievable - it's definitely a bonus with the nation behind us. There's pressure every time you put on the national jersey but being the host nation, the country expect us to do well and we want to give them a team to be proud of. Anticipation is building and it's important we start the tournament well - we need to excite the nation and inspire the supporters to get behind us.
"The feeling in the camp is positive and we might not be favourites for the tournament but we've got a quiet confidence about ourselves - there's no point competing if you don't believe you can go all the way and win it. No-one fancied Zambia last year and you only have to look at them and how they did it - no matter what their inspiration was or what our inspiration is now, we need to show what we can do on the pitch and once you get out of the group stage, anything can happen."