“Today, we are going to war”

While the sight of Nelson Mandela in a Springbok shirt at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final was heralded as the birth of the Rainbow Nation, it was a victory the year after which showed South Africans at their most united. Bafana won the 1996 African Cup of Nations, beating Tunisia 2-0 in the final at the old Soccer City.

The man who came off the bench to score both goals that day, Mark Williams, earned the nickname “Nation Builder”. Unlike the Springboks, which had one non-white face, Bafana was truly mixed. Mandela was present at this final, too, this time wearing the white, green and gold football shirt.

Williams remembers Mandela visiting the team hotel before the match. “He hugged me and said: ‘Today we are going to war. Whatever happens, remember, the whole nation is behind you.'” Williams still sheds a tear when he sees footage from that day. “Yeah, I get emotional. It meant a lot.”

It seemed as if the 1996 victory would herald a sustained period of success. In 1998, Bafana reached the final of the Nations Cup and qualified for the World Cup for the first time. But it didn’t last. The decline has been steady, with each Cup of Nations performance worse than the last. Bafana now stand at 77 in the Fifa rankings.

From my piece on South Africa’s struggling football team in yesterday’s Observer Sport Monthly. The rest is here.

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