‘Mercedes-Benz’ Buthelezi backs Bafana to beat Nigeria and reach final

05 February 2024 - 15:49
By Sithembiso Dindi
Fomrer Bafana Bafana player Linda Buthelezi and Piotr Trochowski during a Soccer Clinic coached by Philipp Lahm and Trochowski at the Deutsche Internationale Schule in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Image: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images Fomrer Bafana Bafana player Linda Buthelezi and Piotr Trochowski during a Soccer Clinic coached by Philipp Lahm and Trochowski at the Deutsche Internationale Schule in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Linda “Mercedes-Benz” Buthelezi, the Bafana Bafana midfield maestro in their 1996 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon)-winning combination, believes South Africa will beat Nigeria in Wednesday's semifinal.

Bafana battle their nemesis for a spot in the final in what promises to be a real spectacle at Stade Bouaké in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, on Wednesday (7pm SA time).

Coach Hugo Broos's Bafana have had an interesting journey to the semis. Their tournament began with a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Mali in the group stages that had critics writing them off, but they battled back with a 4-0 win against Namibia and draw against Tunisia.    

They have hit form in the knockout stage, though the South Africans needed penalties against Cape Verde, and a dose of luck in both the last 16 and quarterfinal clashes as their opposition missed crucial chances. 

Buthelezi, who formed a deadly midfield combination with Eric Tinkler in 1996, believes South Africa have the upper hand against Nigeria.

The former player nicknamed “Mercedes-Benz” expects the Super Eagles, packed with overseas-based players, to underestimate Bafana, who the West Africans have had a notoriously dominant record against.

Nigeria have won seven, drawn five and lost two of their 14 clashes against South Africa. In recent clashes the record is far more even, though, with a win to each side and four draws in the last six matches. 

“You know what I’ve noticed about the Nigerians is that they’ve always felt they are better than us when it comes to football. It’s in their nature and they can’t help themselves,” Buthelezi said.    

“I’m quite sure in their minds they just can’t imagine themselves losing to a South African team that doesn’t have a lot of big-name stars.   

“But they will meet something different in this group of Bafana players. They [SA] are hungry for success, and the belief now is quite high compared to when they started their tournament.   

“I’ve been impressed with the way they play. They didn’t play that well against Cape Verde, but they have done well in the other games, playing as a unit. That will be key.”     

Nigeria's 25-man squad only has two players based in Africa — goalkeepers Stanley Nwabili of South Africa’s Chippa United and Enyimba’s Olorunleke Ojo.    

In overseas-based players Bafana have Sphephelo Sithole of CD Tondela in Portugal's second tier, Mihali Mayambela of Aris Limassol in Cyprus and Percy Tau of Al Ahly of Egypt.      

Buthelezi said Bafana are a well-balanced team and he is confident they will be able to deal with the Super Eagles' tall, physical players.    

“We have tall players at the back, Sphephelo Sithole in the midfield and Evidence Makgopa upfront [are also tall], and the rest of our guys are short,” he said.    

“Our team has a good mixture of players that allows us to be able to compete in the air and also play on the ground.    

“Also, Nigerian football is not where it used to be before when they had players such [1990s star] Sunday Oliseh.”    

Buthelezi’s wish is for Bafana to meet Ivory Coast in the final and he sees the current crop delivering the trophy to Safa house in Nasrec on their return.    

“I wish we can get Ivory Coast in the final and I believe with the team we have, we can beat Ivory Coast at home,” he said.    

“Yes, [if it is] Ivory Coast ... the stadium will be packed with people shouting for them, but what I know is that we will beat Ivory Coast and bring the cup to South Africa.    

“While having a crowd that is behind you is a good thing, it can also work against you if things don’t go your way for a moment there.”

Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of the Congo meet in Wednesday's late semifinal (10pm SA time). The final is at Stade Olympique d'Ébimpé in Abidjan on Sunday (10pm).