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#EWNSportingMoments: How Bafana Bafana went from '4x4' to African champs

In the early part of the decade, the team was in isolation due to apartheid but in 1992, 16 years after being banned by Fifa, they made their international return.

FILE: South African President Nelson Mandela (R) celebrates with Bafana Bafana captain Neil Tovey (L), holding the trophy, on 3 February 1996 after South Africa beat Tunisia 2-0 during the African Cup of Nations final in Johannesburg. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - From the whipping boys to champions of Africa.

Bafana Bafana’s form in the nineties was a tale of two stories.

In the early part of the decade, the team was in isolation due to apartheid but in 1992, 16 years after being banned by Fifa, they made their international return.

They failed to make a mark at the 1994 African Cup of Nations, while their World Cup qualification campaign was nothing to speak off.

But in 1996, that all changed.

Hosting Afcon just five years after readmission, they made their mark on the continent.

In the group stages, they beat Cameroon and Angola but lost their final game to Egypt.

In the knockout rounds, they defeated Algeria and Ghana to set up a final meeting with Tunisia.

After being a free-scoring team throughout the campaign, it would take a 73rd-minute strike from Mark Williams to break the deadlock in the final.

He completed his brace just two minutes later as South Africa beat their much-fancied opponents 2-0 and claimed the trophy.

Helman Mkhalele was one of the key players in that tournament and admits that South Africa went into the competition with a point to prove.

"Prior to the tournament, Bafana was known as the whipping boys and we didn’t take it lightly," he told Eyewitness News. "That was not a good image for our country. As individuals and collectively as a team, we said ‘enough is enough’ to be called the 4x4’s. We started to work very hard and make sure to win each and every game that we were going to play before the African Cup of Nations."

Reflecting on the game against Tunisia, Mkhelele spoke about the emotions that he went through when the final whistle blew at a sold-out FNB Stadium.

"I couldn’t believe that it could happen in a short space of time," he says. "In 1995, we had just lifted the CAF Champions League with Orlando Pirates, right now I’m part of the team that has won Afcon. To be part of such a history of South African football, made me proud. It made me happy."

Sold out stadiums and constant support followed Bafana throughout the tournament that was played on home soil.

And rather than feel pressure to win the trophy, Mkhelele says the team was just focused on making their fans happy.

"I really can’t explain the feeling then because we didn’t see ourselves under pressure to win the tournament and also we didn’t see ourselves losing games because of the support we were getting. Only when we started beating the likes of Algeria did the belief grow."