The year was 2000, when the first South African football men’s team made their first appearance at the Olympic Games held in Sydney, Australia.
They were matched up in Group D alongside Brazil, Japan and Slovakia with the teams competing for two top of the table spots in order to qualify for the next round of the competition.
However, the Shakes Mashaba coached team, which had players such as Matthew Booth, Benni McCarthy and Siyabonga Nomvethe to mention a few, failed to advance to the next stage of the tournament.
They finished third in the group after losing two matches and winning their tie against a star-studded Brazil team 3-1 which had the former Fifa Footballer of the Year for two consecutive years (2004 and 2005) Ronaldinho on the field.
The current crop of players in the U23 team, which is made up of many talented players plying their trade in various Absa Premiership clubs have a chance to qualify for the games to be held in Rio next year, and Booth believes they will reach that feat.
“The team is made up of a very good bunch of players and they can make it to the Olympics,” said Booth. “Yes, they started the tournament slowly, but I think that was what they needed, to switch on because they played really well in the second game.”
“Yes, we still have to get out of the group stages and do well in the semis, but there is hope.”
Owen da Gama’s charges were crushed 3-1 by the host nation Senegal in the opening game, but were able to turn things around in the second match against Zambia, which they won 3-2 on Tuesday.
“I think now what they have to really focus on is the defence. They were really not on point in the first game, but they managed to pick themselves up in the following match. What I like about this team is there is a lot of versatility in almost all the players. It is good seeing a player like Tebogo Moerane, who was my teammate at Wits doing so well.”
Going into the final game of the group stages against Tunisia on Friday, Booth is adamant that the team will pull a rabbit out of the hat, as long as they believe in themselves.
“They need to be confident enough to be able to win their last match. Once that is in their minds, the Tunisians won’t be able to stop them. Coetzee (Rivaldo) and Mngonyama (Kwanda) will need to be very solid at the back because of the dangerous counter attacks by Tunisia. And they will also try to get the players sent off, so they also need to be disciplined at the back.”
“One more thing the players need to realise is that, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Not everyone gets an opportunity to be an Olympian, so they must grab this chance and utilise it. It would be very good to see our two national teams representing the nation at the Games since Banyana Banyana have already booked their spot. ” he concluded.
The match against Tunisia is crucial for Da Gama’s men, as both teams are level on three points and a win for either side will see them through to the semi-finals, while a draw favours baby-Bafana who have a better goal difference to that of the Northern African side.