Stuart Baxter sees first match as critical to Afcon glory
Bafana Bafana's opening 2019 Africa Cup of Nations match against Ivory Coast at the Al Salam Stadium on June 24 in Cairo is one that Bafana coach Stuart Baxter sees as critical if they are to go beyond the first round in their campaign in Egypt.
Bafana were drawn in Group D against 1992 and 2015 winners Ivory Coast, 1976 champions Morocco and neighbours Namibia in Cairo on Friday night.
Reacting to what Bafana will be up against, Baxter first described his team's group as "a difficult one but a good one".
Crucial to Bafana's progress to the last 16, for which the four best third-placed teams in the six groups will qualify, Baxter identified the Ivory Coast game as critical in fermenting whatever hopes they have.
"If we go to the first game and win it, I'm sure it's a massive boost for us. The first one will be important," said Baxter of what will be Bafana's second meeting against the Elephants in the Afcon finals.
A Bafana team coached by Jomo Sono drew 1-1 with Ivory Coast in 1998 in a Group C match in Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. That team went on to lose 2-0 against Egypt in the final as defending champions.
Overall, Bafana have played six times against the Elephants and they are yet to taste a defeat against them.
It was also in the 1998 tournament that Bafana met Namibia in their final Group C match and Benni McCarthy gained prominence as a young Bafana striker when he scored a record four goals in a 4-0 victory.
Bafana will meet Namibia in their second match on June 28 before wrapping up their group matches against Morocco on July 1. Bafana will play all their group matches at the Al Salam Stadium and will remain there if they top the group.
Speaking to the press at Safa House yesterday, Baxter refused to indicate even his minimal ambition in Egypt, almost repeating what he said when Bafana qualified last month via a 2-1 victory over Libya.
"My target, and I will be 100% honest, is to see SA acquit themselves creditably," said the 65-year-old Briton.
"I will be happy if we acquit ourselves properly and we do the nation credit. I think setting targets will be like putting something out there that's very loose.
"If you asked me a straight question, personally I will say I want to win it, yes I do. But I'm not going to throw that one out so that it's all over the front pages of the newspapers. We don't do that by banging our chests because then you'll end up suffering the pressure that you can't handle.
"Let's go there and keep developing. If we are successful with that we will knock a couple of teams over and become dangerous."
Bafana have met the highest-ranked team in their group, Morocco, six times and four of those clashes were in the Afcon, starting with Bafana's quarterfinal 2-1 win in 1998, a 3-1 victory in a Group B match in 2002, and two draws in the 2004 and 2013 tournaments. But armed with a two-time Afcon winning coach in Frenchman Herve Renard, Morocco will be the most difficult of Bafana's opponents in Group D.
"People will be looking at our group as a 'group of death, which is good for us because that means they rate us as a dangerous opponent," said Baxter who didn't attend the draw in Cairo on his doctor's advice after what he called a minor health problem.
"What this squad needs is this sort of challenge. It needs to know where they stand."
Baxter is yet to decide whether to use the upcoming Cosafa Cup in preparing his team for Egypt. An opponent in a similar mould as Ivory Coast will be important to be engaged just before the opening match, he said.