After the team won in 1996, South Africa was established as a global football superpower. Nowadays it is considered one of the best teams on earth and has been awarded with hosting rights for three successive quadrennial world cups through 2026.
The “african nations championship” is an international football tournament that has been taking place since 1992. The team that won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations was South Africa’s national football team and it had a major impact on post-apartheid South Africa.
With Nelson Mandela, the man who made it possible, beside him, Neil Tovey hoisted the 1996 Afcon trophy.
South Africa was not scheduled to host the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations.
Kenya was the tournament’s assigned hosts, but they withdrew out 14 months before the event, claiming it would cost six times as much as they had anticipated. As a result, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) had to search elsewhere in November 1994.
Nelson Mandela had been elected president of South Africa in the first democratic elections that year, in April.
Following the foundation of a new multi-racial football organization in 1991, as the apartheid regime started to crumble, the country’s football team was just recently re-admitted to Fifa.
South Africa was selected as the next host country. They were, however, never anticipated to win. Early results upon their reinstatement in 1991 were so terrible that their FA’s general secretary Solomon Morewa cried.
It would be different during the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). Football’s unstoppable momentum was caught up by the transformational events of the 1990s, which demolished more than three centuries of white dominance in South Africa.
The narrative of the country’s incredible Rugby World Cup victory in 1995 as hosts is well-known.
However, many who represented the fledgling democracy at the 1996 Afcon believe that this win had an even greater influence.
South Africa’s first opponent was Cameroon. They convened on January 13, 1996, in Soccer City stadium, just outside Soweto, where thousands of students had marched against white minority rule 20 years before, with hundreds dead in the police reaction.
Neil Tovey was 33 years old when he died. He had made his international debut soon after his 30th birthday, in July 1992, as a defender with home side Kaizer Chiefs. That was in his country’s debut match as a multi-racial, really national squad, a 1-0 victory against Cameroon.
“I don’t know whether the squad and I would have claimed we could win it if you had asked us before the tournament,” Tovey tells the World Service’s World Football podcast.
“The fans and players had no prior experience with international football tournaments. However, as the tournament progressed, the nation came to life.”
At Afcon 1996, one significant absentee was the tournament’s reigning winners, Nigeria, who boycotted the event.
President Mandela, whose clan name was Madiba, paid the first of numerous visits to the squad the day before their first match.
Another member of the South African team was Lucas Radebe, who played for Leeds United at the time. Meeting Mandela was virtually a holy experience for him.
“We never knew what his face looked like when we were kids,” he explains.
“We had an old photo of him as a child, but when he came to meet us at camp, that’s when ‘Madiba Magic’ happened.” He exuded such a powerful presence. We were at a loss for words.
“We would have defeated them that day if we had come across Brazil. That’s how enthralled we were. We were pushed to the greatest level by his presence, and every game we played was for Madiba and South Africa.”
The notion of Mandela working as a good luck charm for sporting teams was dubbed ‘Madiba Magic.’ It began on Mandela’s inauguration day, May 10, 1994, when South Africa defeated Zambia for the first time, with the new president in attendance.
It seems to be operating properly once again. Cameroon was defeated 3-0, setting the tone for the rest of the tournament. Phil Masinga of Leeds scored the game’s first goal barely 24 hours after arriving from England.
South Africa were known as Madiba’s Boys after winning their group and progressing to the quarter-finals, according to ex-Charlton striker Shaun Bartlett.
He adds, “Even today, simply talking about Nelson Mandela gives me chills.” “Every time we met him and shook his hand, it seemed like he was giving you something.
“The only drawback was that you had to get up at half past four in the morning since he was still following his jail regimen. He went for a stroll early in the morning. So we had to get up at five a.m. to meet him.”
At the opening ceremony, Mandela addressed the crowd, saying, “Africa is rising.”
South Africa, on the other hand, did not become African champions as a result of a surge of passion or some supernatural force. They could also play, and Clive Barker was an excellent instructor.
“He discovered the strengths in each player and allowed them do what made them excellent,” adds Tovey, who was his country’s most-capped player with 29 games.
They had a 13-match undefeated streak going into the competition, which includes draws against Germany and Argentina.
Radebe and Phil Masinga, both of Leeds, as well as Wolves attacker Mark Williams, added to their outstanding form. Manchester United were keeping an eye on defender Mark Fish, who eventually signed for Lazio before joining Bolton in 1997.
And there was a lot to live up to following the rugby team’s incredible success the year before, which brought the country together behind a mostly white squad.
“That was one of the objectives we discussed,” Tovey explains.
“We understood our mission was to contribute to bringing our nation together, and Madiba recognized that if we did well, it would improve the country’s unity.”
“The excitement around the rugby team’s victory was just 10% of what it might have been if we had accomplished the same outcome.”
Radebe was informed he had no time to rejoice after the final because he had to return to Leeds immediately.
A 2-1 quarter-final victory against Algeria, won by John ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu’s 86th-minute goal, set up a semi-final match against Ghana. They were the tournament favorites, Africa’s number one squad, and the competition’s sole undefeated team.
Bayern Munich defender Samuel Kuffour, Torino midfielder Abedi Pele – the father of Andre and Jordan Ayew – and another Leeds player, prolific attacker Tony Yeboah, were all part of their strong side.
The Ghanaians, on the other hand, were dismissed without fanfare in another 3-0 defeat.
Tovey believes, “Ghana was arguably one of our greatest performances ever.”
“Between Lucas and Yeboah, there was a lot of rivalry. Individual match-ups were won all over the field.”
The triumph made the front pages of every newspaper the next day. “By the time South Africa defeated Ghana, white suburbia was pouring to the game in numbers not seen in 20 years at local and African-based tournaments,” Business Day said.
The popular Afrikaans-language newspaper Beeld’s front-page headline on the eve of the final was printed in Zulu: ‘Yebo Bafana Bafana!’ (Of course, The Boys!)
Tunisia was their adversary.
Tunisia had excelled on their path to the final despite not being one of the pre-tournament favorites.
Three hours before kick-off, 80,000 people crowded Soccer City, including President Nelson Mandela, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, and Brazil icon Pele.
Many supporters had versions of the words ‘Make Madiba Magic’ painted on their bare chests, while Mandela donned a duplicate of Neil Tovey’s number nine jersey.
The first half was dominated by midfield, except for a Bartlett shot that the Tunisian goalkeeper pushed over the bar. But, just as the game was fading, Williams, who had come in for Masinga, pounced halfway through the second half.
The striker scored two goals in two minutes, one with a close-range header and the second with a left-footed shot, to give South Africa a memorable win. The sensation was similar to boiling bliss.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” adds Radebe. “Everyone’s feet were not touching the earth in the country.”
“Soweto could be heard.” The spectators outside the stadium in the township, not the pitch, were sobbing and yelling.
“People were basically flinging themselves on the ground as we drove out from the stadium.” Some donated a shoe, while others brought a real fish (in honor of ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu and Mark Fish).
“It was really incredible. That, I believe, was the nation’s pride.”
South Africa would go on to qualify for the World Cups the next two years.
Moshoeu reported breaking down in tears when a white admirer requested for his signature before his death in 2015 at the age of 49 from stomach cancer.
South Africa faced huge issues, and sport alone cannot address all of them. Mandela, on the other hand, understood its significance.
He said, “Sport has the potential to alter the world.” “It has the ability to move people.” It has the ability to bring people together in a way that few other things can.
“Sport has the power to instill hope where there was previously only despair. It has greater clout than the government when it comes to breaking down racial boundaries.”
Radebe quickly detected a change in the dynamics.
“Hearing white people say things like “you’re my hero, you’re my idol” made me cry because I knew how we felt for all those years. That was the South Africa of the future “he declares
“Our brains became more alert. Our eyes were seeing something different from what we had previously seen. It was really enthralling. Just for the sake of football.”
That sensation, according to Tovey, remained beyond the initial days of celebration.
“Now, more whites were flocking to the stadium to witness important club matches and internationals.” All of the cosmopolitan groups increased their support.
“What we accomplished for the nation was enormous.” Rugby drew around 10% to 12% of the population’s attention, whereas soccer drew 90-95 percent. Even white farmers were aware of Bafana Bafana at this point.
“That in no way diminishes what the rugby players have done for the nation. In 1995, they were the first to execute it, and they did a fantastic job.”
‘Sport can produce hope where there was previously only despair,’ Mandela stated. It has greater clout than the government when it comes to breaking down racial boundaries.’
South Africa’s football legacy was qualifying for the following two World Cups. In the next two Afcons, they finished second and third, respectively.
Then-Fifa president Joao Havelange vowed in the corridors of power that Africa will host the 2006 World Cup. It finally occurred in South Africa in 2010.
Tovey, Radebe, and Bartlett will be remembered as champions by the people of their nation for the rest of their lives. Mandela presented Tovey with the prize.
“You just go about your business as a sportsperson. But, in the 26 years afterwards I realized that the moment I had with him was really unique, “he declares
“In my bar, there’s a picture on the wall.” It’s written down in the annals of time.
“If he hadn’t come out of prison to bring us back into international football, we wouldn’t have been there.”
The immediate legacy for Radebe was a fine from Leeds.
“After the final, (Leeds manager) Howard (Wilkinson) phoned and said, ‘I want you to be on that aircraft,’” he adds. In the dead of winter, I return to Yorkshire. Oh, my goodness.
“We were supposed to return the next day.” Because I returned a day late, I was penalized a week’s pay. To be honest, it was painful for me when I was in Leeds and watched the open-top bus tour with the trophy on TV.
“The guys traveled to Sun City with their wives and girlfriends, and in February, I’ll be playing games in Leeds.” The weather had been the worst it had ever been. It was a disaster.
“I couldn’t wait for summer to arrive at the conclusion of the season so I could go home and join in the festivities.”
However, Bartlett’s affiliation with Mandela did not stop with the Africa Cup of Nations win. At his wedding, ‘Madiba’ was a guest.
“We didn’t let on that he was coming. My wife and I were the only ones who knew about it. I suppose I felt more butterflies than when I proposed to my missus “he declares
“She arrived at 3 p.m., and he sat down at 2:45 p.m. because he didn’t want to upstage her.” That was the guy, always doing things well, and they are minor lessons I can use to my own life.
“He is clearly seen in the photographs. You can’t say he came to your wedding and then deny it because you don’t have evidence.”