Bafana keen to return to former glories
When South Africa won the African Cup of Nations in 1996, the Rainbow Nation was in the midst of riding the crest of a wave. Politically, the post-apartheid era was one of hope and ambition, symbolised by the remarkable ascension to the country's presidency of Nelson Mandela, four years after his release from his incarceration on Robben Island.
On the sports field, the feel-good factor translated into the resurgence of the country's cricket and rugby teams, the latter of which won the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, in 1995. Under a year later, the eyes of the soccer world turned to South Africa, as the country stepped in to host the African Cup of Nations, following Kenya's withdrawal.
Under Clive Barker and backed by fanatical home support, the previously unfancied Bafana Bafana made a remarkable run to the final, defeating the likes of Cameroon and Ghana en route. Joburg was, once again, the venue for another landmark day in the nation's history, as two goals from Mark Williams - in the space of three second-half minutes - beat Tunisia to send the 80,000 in attendance into raptures once again.
Twelve years later and, in one way, it's déjà vu all over again, as South Africa's Cup of Nations-bound footballers are charged with once again emulating their rugby counterparts after the masters of the oval ball took home their second World Cup last October.
However, the optimism that enveloped football in South Africa at the turn of the last century - Bafana Bafana also qualified for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups - has been replaced by a concern that, despite those apparently sturdy foundations, the day that the country can consider itself a genuine African superpower is getting further away.
A look at South Africa's Cup of Nations record since the glory of 1996 provides evidence of a steady decline. As defending champions two years later, a side under the tutelage of Jomo Sono - who replaced Frenchman Philippe Troussier shortly before the tournament - was inspired by Benni McCathy's seven goals in an unlikely run to the final, in which Egypt ultimately prevailed.
In 2000, South Africa fell at the semi-final stage, before getting no further than the last eight two years later. 2004's failure to get out of the group stages was disappointing, but the denouement came in the last Cup of Nations when Bafana, who had already failed to qualify for the World Cup in Germany, lost group matches to Guinea, Tunisia and Zambia, failing to score a goal in the process.
The ire of the country was led by President Thabo Mbeki and the resulting recriminations were widespread enough to ensure no further embarrassment for a nation that was gradually turning its focus to preparations for the 2010 World Cup. Domestically, a reserve division was established to strengthen the structure of the country's 16-team Premier Soccer League.
Where the national team were concerned, the SAFA departed from its previous method for hiring coaches. Although not averse to handing the controls to a foreign man, as are shown by the examples of Troussier and an Englishman, Stuart Baxter, the national association decided it wanted a higher-profile figurehead, a 'name'. Enter Carlos Alberto Parreira.
The man who led Brazil to the 1994 World Cup was handed a four-year contract worth $14.8million, with the remit to ensure that South Africa emulates other 'lesser' nations who have punched above their weight as World Cup hosts, such as USA (1994) and Korea and Japan (2002).
The size of the contract means that, although 2010 is the ultimate reason for his hiring, Parreira must show more instant signs of revitalising the national team, starting with the Cup of Nations. However, his approach to the tournament suggests that he feels little of this pressure.
The Bafana squad features a mix of established stars, such as skipper Aaron Mokoena, Steven Pienaar and Sibusiso Zuma as well as domestically-based youngsters, such as strikers Excellent Walaza, Thembinkosi Fanteni, who will be given the chance to fulfill their potential on the international stage.
The inexperienced players in the squad have benefited from Parreira's decision to omit a number of bigger names, moves which have raised some eyebrows. Stalwarts such as Delron Buckley and Macbeth Sibaya have been deemed surplus to requirements, as has McCarthy, the country's all-time leading scorer.
This is not the first time McCarthy's international career has hit a bump in the road. His latest spell in the international wilderness apparently ended last year upon Parreira's appointment, yet he will continue to turn out for Blackburn Rovers while the tournament takes place.
The curious thing about McCarthy's omission is that Parreira has given little explicit indication as to his reasoning for excluding the striker. One interpretation of the move is that he knows what the 29-year-old is capable of and is keen to use the Cup of Nations as a chance to see the next generation in action.
Though Parreira has been criticised for leaving out his talismanic striker, the move might just work in the coach's favour. Having had just a handful of matches to prepare his new side, the Brazilian may feel he is on a hiding to nothing in this tournament.
Thus, McCarthy's absence will allow him to spin a poor display positively by focusing on individual performances rather than team results. Furthermore, if Bafana perform well without him, it will be argued, just think what they can do when McCarthy is back in the team.
Clever reverse psychology? Perhaps. The unshakable confidence of a world champion coach who believes in his own methods? Absolutely.
It is understood that Parreira has been told that nothing less than a quarter-final appearance in Ghana will be acceptable, no easy task considering Bafana face group matches against 2004 champions Tunisia, 2006 semi-finalists Senegal and shock 2006 World Cup qualifiers Angola.
However, the pressure is gentle at best. Having made Parreira the highest-paid coach in national team history, SAFA has handcuffed itself to their man until his contract expires. Parreira knows he has time to build a team and that he will ride out any storm that may follow failure over the next month.
However, with just over two years until South Africa plays host to the World Cup, a strong showing in Ghana would do much to boost hopes that the side, currently ranked 53rd in the world, is capable of making a challenge on the biggest stage.
The SAFA have their man. Now he has to provide them a team of which the country, once again, can be proud.