When Bafana Bafana lock horns with Nigeria’s Super Eagles in the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final at De Bouke Stadium on Wednesday (19:00), the player that should be looked after – forget about Victor Osimhen for a minute – is Atalanta winger Ademola Lookman.
Nigeria, in all honesty, would not be where they are right now without him, as he is their top goal scorer with three goals.
Lookman, who won the junior FIFA World Cup with England in 2017 in the Korea Republic, scored twice as the Super Eagles eliminated Cameroon in the Round of 16.
He was the star yet again on Friday, blasting the ball into the roof of the net in the 41st minute, as they eliminated Angola in the quarter-finals at Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan.
With Angolans retreating to protect the goalpost, Lookman held his line well when Simon Moses found him on the edge of the box before rifling into the roof of the net.
Of course, it was not plain sailing for Jose Peseiro’s side, who appear to be growing game by game. After Nigeria came from behind to draw level with Equatorial Guinea in the first game of the group stages, one knew that they would pick their way through since they have players who are playing at the highest level. They did, beating hosts Ivory Coast and Guinea-Bissau to finish top of Group A with seven points.
They now face South Africa, who just like Nigeria, have grown in this competition when no one expected them to reach the Last Four.
For me, to see Bafana having gone this far, they have overachieved, having failed to qualify for the 2021 edition in Cameroon.
Coach Hugo Broos, despite the flurry of critics at home over his selections, has done well to play the core of Mamelodi Sundowns at the back after SuperSport United’s Siyanda Xulu was shaky in the loss against Mali.
Xulu has not played since then and Broos has brought in Grant Kekana to twin him with Mothobi Mvala and the changes have seen Bafana reach the semi-finals for the first time in over 20 years.
For the past four matches, Broos, who led Cameroon to the 2017 AFCON title, has kept the same line-up and expect no changes tonight.
They have also won those matches on the bounce along with four clean sheets for the first time since the 1996 triumph, which is a confidence booster ahead of the Nigeria test.
But Nigeria Owes SA
When I say Nigeria owes us in this competition, I’m maybe saying it loosely, but they have been a pain in the throat to Bafana at AFCON tournaments. My fellow Nigeria friends and journalists, granted, are all sure that the Super Eagles will beat Bafana Bafana because of that experience.
No one will forget the 2000 edition that was co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria when Tijani Babangida scored twice in the semi-final, with the first goal coming in the first minute which unsettled Trott Moloto’s side and eventually eliminated Bafana.
Then came 2004 in Tunisia, where Bafana was hammered 4-0 by the Super Eagles in Group D with goals by Joseph Yobo, Jay-Jay Okocha, and two from Peter Odemwingie. For the first time in AFCON history, Bafana could not reach the knockout stages.
Another meeting at the AFCON was in the 2019 edition in the quarter-finals when Nigeria skipper William Troost-Ekong painfully scored in the 89th minute to all but dash Bafana’s hopes of a semi-final spot.
If Bafana aim for revenge and this group of players is eager to etch their name into the history books, then the time is now to make Nigeria suffer what Bafana has gone through in the past three AFCON meetings.
If Bafana passes this test, I will strongly start to think that the Africa Cup of Nations trophy is coming home because Ivory Coast or DR Congo, who will contest the other semi-final, neither are better than Nigeria.
By Robin-Duke Madlala (@duke_robin).