South Africa launched a challenge for African Nations Cup redemption by outplaying minnows Niger 2-0 Saturday in the north-east city of Nelspruit.
Early and late first half goals from strikers Katlego Mphela and Bernard Parker saw Bafana Bafana (The Boys) secure maximum points from a Group G opener likely to prove the easiest of six qualifying games.
A visit to bogey team Sierra Leone in October will reveal more about the team who three months ago became the first World Cup hosts to be eliminated after the first round.
Local coach Pitso Mosimane replaced veteran Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreria after that tournament and vowed to take the 1996 African champions to the 2012 finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
With seven-time title holders Egypt in the same mini-league and only the table toppers guaranteed a tournament place, it is a tall order for former national team striker Mosimane.
After hosting and winning the Nations Cup, South Africa have steadily slipped from 1998 runners-up to three consecutive first round exits since 2004 and the humiliation of not even making it to Angola this year.
“We controlled the game and I am happy with the result which takes us to the top of the table. Anxiety and nervousness in front of goal cost us a wider winning margin,” admitted Mosimane.
Everton midfielder and official man of the match Steven Pienaar echoed his coach: “It was disappointing that we did not score more goals, but I am happy with my form.”
The vuvuzela may have been shown a ‘red card’ from European football body UEFA this week, but the plastic horn that droned to prominence during the World Cup was much in evidence at the 40,000-seat Mbombela Stadium.
South African supporters need little encouragement to celebrate and they witnessed an encouraging start as the team set out to break down the predictably hyper-cautious Central Africans.
Niger survived several scares and goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda needed treatment after taking an accidental knock when defender Bongani Khumalo tried to knock a loose ball into the net.
Mphela put Bafana Bafana ahead with a clinical finish on 12 minutes, racing on to a perfectly weighted Pienaar pass and touching the ball twice before chipping it over the onrushing goalkeeper.
The 27-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns striker craves a transfer overseas with Birmingham City and Glasgow Rangers reportedly showing interest and this top-drawer finish will do his prospects no harm.
Poor control robbed Mphela of a second goal as half-time approached with the ball running away from him and overworked Daouda cleared as Niger struggled to contain the lively home team.
And three minutes into first-half stoppage time South Africa doubled their advantage with Parker from Dutch champions Twente volleying an Anele Ngcongca cross into the corner of the net.
The second half followed a similar pattern to what had gone before with South Africa attacking continuously and Daouda from Cameroon club Cotonspoprt Garoua sparing the visitors a hiding through numerous fine saves.
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