Stuart Baxter has warned South Africa’s Group D rivals his side are not intimidated, despite their poor recent record at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The 1996 winners have made it through to the quarter-finals just once in the last eight editions of the tournament and failed to even qualify in 2017.
They begin their quest for a second AFCON crown against Ivory Coast at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo on Monday, before taking on Namibia and a much-fancied Morocco side.
South Africa have not managed to make it past the group stage in four of their last five AFCON appearances but British coach Baxter, who is in his second spell in charge, is adamant his side will give everything they have to end their disappointing run.
“We are playing against the best teams on the continent which we have in our group,” he said. “We need not get intimidated but play with respect and at the same time give the opponents the respect they deserve but never fear them.
“We are not favourites to win the tournament but what you will not see is a South African side afraid of its opponents. This is a side that can match any side in this tournament.”
But Bafana Bafana have won only one of their last 15 games in the competition – 2-0 against Angola on home soil in January 2013 – and they take on an in-form Ivory Coast side in their opener.
The two-time winners beat Zambia 4-1 in their final warm-up match to make it just one defeat in their last 12 outings.
And one of the stars of their current squad, Lyon forward Maxwel Cornet, has talked up side’s chances of going all the way for the second time in four years.
“We will go to [Egypt] to bring back the cup,” he said. “It’s normal. We will give everything there. It’s for the whole people, a whole nation.
“Given the disillusionment after the non-qualification for the 2018 World Cup, we are really keen to show the Ivorians that they can all count on us.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ivory Coast – Nicolas Pepe
Pepe has been linked with a number of clubs after scoring 22 times in 38 Ligue 1 appearances for runners-up Lille in 2018-19. He has formed a good partnership with Wilfried Zaha at international level and has been tipped to light up the tournament.
South Africa – Percy Tau
Belgium-based Tau has scored nine times for South Africa and is coming off the back of a good campaign with Royale Union Saint-Gilloise, where he is on loan from Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion.
KEY OPTA FACTS
– Ivory Coast and South Africa’s only previous encounter in the Africa Cup of Nations was in 1998. The game ended 1-1 in the group stages, with both teams going through to the knockout stages.
– This is Ivory Coast’s 23rd AFCON participation, a tally only bettered by Egypt (24).
– South Africa are the last team to win the Africa Cup of Nations on their debut, it was in 1996.
– Ivory Coast have lost only one of their last 17 AFCON group games, with their last defeat in an opening match coming against Ghana back in 1996.