Bongani Zungu of South Africa celebrates goal during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Finals football match between South Africa and Namibia at the Al Salam Stadium, Cairo, Egypt on 28 June 2019 ©Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

A battle of wits will be waged at the Al Salaam Stadium at 18H00 on Monday when South Africa line-up against Group D leaders Morocco in the final group match of the expanded 2019 African Nations Cup tournament in Cairo.

Beside the expected tactical tussle between Herve Renard (Morocco) and Stuart Baxter (South Africa), there is an under-current of political wits waged by the two countries dating back to almost five decades due to the right of self-determination by Western Sahara.

The conflict between dates back to 1973 when Polisario Front forces started an insurgent against Spanish colonial forces in their determination to become a self-governing state, but the Kingdom of Morocco considers Western Sahara as its “Southern province.”

The Polisario Front, which identifies itself with other post-colonial liberation movements across the continent (among them the African National Congress – ANC), declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976.

A few more countries have since recognized the SADR, chief among them naturally South Africa with their long history dating back to the days of the armed struggle and Algeria—Morocco’s rival and the main foreign backer of the Polisario Front.

And when the South African government ordered the Football Association (SAFA) President Danny Jordaan to vote against Morocco for the 2026 World Cup bid last year, it further intensified the rivalry between the two countries.

Now as the two countries meet at the Al Salaam stadium, expect the rivalry to be as equally intense between the two countries even though Morocco have already qualified for the next round of the tournament but will certainly not ease down and will come out guns blazing.

Morocco certainly looked the part in dispatching Cote d’Ivoire 1-0 in their second group match which guaranteed them qualification for the next round, Morocco is acutely aware that in five previous meetings with their South African opponents, they have never defeated the gold and green shirted boys.

Renard is anticipating a “tough game” against Bafana Bafana in spite of their contrasting fortunes in losing their opening game but winning their second through similar 1-0 margins against Cote d’Ivoire and Namibia.
“South Africa have a lot of very good players,” said Renard. “They also have a very good coach in Stuart Baxter so it will be a tough game,” he added.

But, Baxter snorted when reminded about the statistics against Morocco and explained that he did not believe previous teams or their coaches for that matter, had been the same and so you cannot make comparisons.

“I’m not really a great historian,” said Baxter. “I like to live in the current era. I don’t think the previous teams were the same nor the coaches or the venues where the two countries met, had been the same for that matter.

“I know there can be countries that can cause problems for certain countries, I’m hoping that it could be the same, but I’m not a believer in that concept at all. I believe the circumstances are not the same but we are confident.”

South Africa welcome back assistant skipper Dean Furman who missed the second tie against Namibia, watching from the stands nursing a slight knock but together with Thami Mkhize have been declared fit for selection against Morocco.

The question weighing on the South African coach’s shoulders is whether to continue with the team that delivered against Morocco where the midfield was anchored by Bongani Zungu and his former team-mate Hlompho Kekana or sideline them to accommodate Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo who also sat out the Namibia clash.

“Morocco is a very experienced side and would be very tough opponents for us, but we also feel we are settling more and more into a good rhythm.

“We believe we can get a good; the players re quite confident and they know the preparations have been going quite well. Yeah, we were a bit late in preparations because of some cancelled friendly games, but we are confident.”

Whatever happens, the stakes a very high, particularly for a South African team that carries the hopes of a nation whose spirits have been dampened by the failure of the cricketers at the World Cup and Banyana Banyana at the ongoing FIFA World Cup.

Yet the fact that debutants Madagascar brought high riding Nigeria to their knees with a well-deserved 2-0 victory on Sunday should inspire Bafana to believe that anything is possible if you believe.

Percy Tau might have been voted “Man of the Match” against Namibia but he has not really started firing and hopefully today could be the day that he sheds his tentative and conservative approach and roar like the lion that we know him to be.

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