KICK OFF: How will the players be feeling with the opening match now just a few hours away?
Neil Tovey: They haven’t been playing with extreme confidence, so I would imagine there’s going to be a few sleepless nights for one or two, but the guys that have been at the World Cup will probably take it in their stride.
KO: How was it for you guys 17 years ago, especially given it was the team’s first major tournament?
NT: We didn’t really know too much about the tournament at that stage; obviously we hadn’t played at any Cup of Nations, unlike other teams who’d played many big tournaments. I think with that first one we hadn’t really seen too much about the competition, so it was more of a normal “take one game at a time” scenario. We had to make sure we won the first game and knew it would set us up for the whole tournament.
KO: How did the 1996 guys deal with that pressure and what did Clive Barker say to alleviate some of that pressure?
NT: Look, we were confident players; we had players that were the leaders in their own right at their clubs, so a lot of leaders in our group could alleviate that pressure. But above all we were a happy group, and going back to Clive, we weren’t in a prison camp. We were relaxed, we had time off during the tournament. We had special moments, going off to play golf once or twice. So there were moments where they let the guys go home to see their families – touch base, go to the movies, whatever. Look, pressure comes from underperforming and we were performing. The pressure was good pressure … it was a good feeling. Even after losing to Egypt it didn’t bother us much because we had already topped our group and that was the first objective. I think it’s just important to keep your heads and thinking about the next problem and not too far ahead in the tournament.
KO: With the likes of yourself, Lucas Radebe, Doctor Khumalo and others assuming leadership roles, who will the current team be looking at for leadership on and off the field?
NT: You’ve got [Siyabonga] Sangweni of Pirates who’s been there for a couple years. You’ve got [Bongani] Khumalo who’s been around for a while, and have a few [other] players who played at the World Cup who are leaders and captains of their teams. They have to come together and just relax and take the situation in their stride. But you need those leaders to come out.
KO: Before the start of 1996 tournament, Bafana won four out of their last six games, drawing the other two against Argentina and Germany. What are your thoughts about the current team and their form?
NT: Ja, it’s not pleasing at this moment in time, but it’s pretty much a team in process. You know, Gordon has only just taken over; before our tournament Clive had been with the team for a year and a bit. So obviously there’s going to be a bit of chopping-n-changing, finding his way with the team and the players; plus there’s a little bit of a difference in the situation [compared to ours]. Going back to the results, they’re not the desired results that you’d actually want, but understanding the circumstances. And I don’t think Gordon has played his trump card yet; I don’t think he’s played the team he’ll put out there for the opening match either. He’s also for a lot of reasons tried a lot of combinations because he doesn’t want the opposition to know how he’s going to play.
KO: While visiting SA in November, Ian Wright said he believed that “SA fans need to lower their expectations of Bafana for them to succeed at Afcon”. Do you agree with his sentiments?
NT: Yes, I think all that Bafana need to do is win the opening match and then the thought patterns will change, the confidence will come back to the fans. They need to play with freedom and not think that if they make one mistake they’ll get booed or hear a grumble in the crowd. You know, it’s a big ask and fans put a lot of pressure on players.
KO: What do you think are realistic expectation for Bafana at Afcon 2013?
NT: Like I said, don’t think too far ahead; let’s get out of the group. We have to get out of our group – it’s important. I don’t think too many hosts, if any, have ever failed at the first hurdle. So get into the quarter-final stage and then it’s just one game at a time. With the quarter-finals you’re three games away from the Final, and anything can happen over 90 minutes as Zambia showed.
By Mzamo Moloi