It is 11 years ago now that Bafana Bafana returned from Tunisia with their tails between their legs like a canine that had been caught stealing.
The national team had been knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) following a 1-1 draw with Morocco that was not enough to see them advance to the knockout stages.
They had flattered to deceive during an opening 2-0 win over Benin before falling to a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
The late Bra April “Styles” Phumo – bless his soul – had the temerity to suggest that the South African Football Association (Safa) should give him the job full-time, following this “respectable draw”.
He was a stand-in coach, having been appointed after Safa parted ways with Shakes Mashaba.
To say we went to Tunisia with our heads raised high would be an understatement, with Mashaba having easily guided the team through the qualification rounds.
Phumo was a highly decorated manager who had spent most of his career as a coach in Lesotho. The Mofolo-born tactician had used this time to gobble up knowledge that was unavailable to most South Africans due to apartheid.
Here was a man – we falsely believed – who would build on the foundation laid by “Mshekesheke” and replicate Bafana’s success in the halcyon days of 1996.
How wrong we were.
Eleven players, led by one Aaron “Mbazo” Mokoena, began demanding more money from Safa. This was despite some of the players breaking curfew and crawling back to the hotel in the early hours.
It was all downhill from there.
To many pundits, it came as no surprise when they were eliminated from the tournament in the group stages, cutting short their stay in the north African country.
As acclaimed playwright Duma ka Ndlovu wrote in The Game: “Life does have these little ironies.”
So it is that Mashaba is back at the helm of the national team to finish what he started in 2003.
Just as he did back then, he eased the team to qualification for this, the 30th edition of the continental showpiece, which began in Equatorial Guinea on Saturday.
Going into this tournament, he has the enviable record of being unbeaten in 10 matches.
These results include two crucial draws against Nigeria, which contributed to the Super Eagles missing out on the opportunity to defend the title that they ironically won here, in South Africa, two years ago.
When Bafana tackle number one-ranked African country Algeria in their opening fixture tonight, they will have their fate in their own hands.
The players will have Mashaba’s philosophy in their minds when they take to the pitch: If you want to be the best, you must play against the best and not just put in a good performance, but get a positive result as well.
Getting through this “Group of Death”, which also features Senegal and Ghana, would see Bafana’s confidence skyrocket ahead of what may well be easier encounters in the knockout stages.
The 3-0 warm-up victory over Mali will have given the players an idea of what to expect when they take on West African powerhouses Ghana and Senegal.
Countries from this region and the north have dominated this tournament since the inaugural edition in 1957.
Bafana and Zambia – incidentally the only two Southern African representatives at the tournament this time around – are the only countries to have broken the West and North African stranglehold by winning the event.
Given the manner in which he guided the team to qualification, there is no reason why we should not put our trust in Mashaba.
He has turned things around to such an extent that the question on everyone’s lips is: “Why did it take Safa so long to realise that they had a jewel right in their midst?”
To Mashaba and the boys, you can be sure that all 52 million-plus armchair coaches will be holding their breath as you embark on this mammoth mission tonight.
Go, Bafana Bafana, go!