Baxter prefers ‘underdogs’ tag ahead of Nigeria Afcon clash

Bafana Bafana will not think that because they knocked out hosts Egypt, that they are now the favourites going into the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarter-final match against long-time rivals Nigeria on Wednesday, according to coach Stuart Baxter.

The two teams meet at the Cairo International Stadium after their narrow wins on Saturday: Bafana having edged the Pharaohs 1-0, while the Super Eagles beat champions Cameroon 3-2.

Stuart Baxter. Photo: footballghana.com.

Instead, Baxter prefers that his team be seen as the minnows ahead of the game, as he believes that will help to ease the pressure.  South Africa took four points off Nigeria in the qualifiers, following a historic 2-0 win in Uyo in Baxter’s first match in charge, in June 2017, and 1-1 draw at FNB Stadium in the return leg in November last year, although their west African opponents did finish above them in the qualifying group.

Nigeria also had a better record after the group stage of the tournament, having finished second in Group C with 6 points from their three matches, as opposed to Bafana’s lucky qualification into the Last 16 as one of the four best third-place finishers, having scored a single goal that helped them to finish on 3 points. But even despite that, they did go on to beat Egypt against all odds in the first knockout stage, which, despite its significance, still doesn’t inspire Baxter to believe that they are odds-on favourites to advance to the semi-finals.

“I think the Nigerians are absolutely one of the best teams on the continent. They have been, for a long time, a powerhouse of African football and one game doesn’t make us favourites; I think I would love to have that little tag as underdogs and in that way, slip the pressure from you guys,” says Baxter.

“We’ll go into the game as we do every game. I think when we’ve played well, when we hit that balance between good organization and still getting on the ball and playing with pace, and using that natural, inherent mobility and technique, we can give anybody on this continent a good game. And therefore we go into every game knowing that we have a chance to win and a chance to lose, and that is how we’ll approach this game,” he adds.

The Briton also says he is wary of being too confident: “We’ll be respecting Nigeria but not fearing them, and we will absolutely not think that we’re the favourites, we will know that we’ll have to produce a very good South African performance if we’re gonna beat them.”

The match will kickoff at 9pm, but before then, Senegal will come up against Benin at the 30 June Stadium, also in Cairo, in the first quarter-final at 6pm.