South Africa will get the first of two opportunities to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro when they take on Algeria in the semifinals of the Africa Under-23 Cup of Nations in Senegal on Wednesday.
Victory would assure the COSAFA side a place in Brazil next August, while defeat would send them into a third-place play-off they would need to win to get an Olympic spot.
And coach Owen da Gama’s side can take to the field with some confidence against the Algerians.
En route to this tournament, South Africa played three friendly matches against North African opposition.
First they defeated Egypt 2-1 in Durban in June and followed that up with a 4-0 win over Tunisia in September away in Tunis. The home side won the second match 2-1 a few days later.
South Africa continued with their good run over North Africa when they beat Tunisia 1-0 again in Senegal in the group stages last Friday.
“The clash against Algeria gives us a chance to play another North African country – we played Tunisia and Egypt in friendlies before the tournament and we did well,” midfielder Deolin Mekoa said.
“I think we carry a slight advantage over them, but we still have to work hard for the victory. We know it won’t come easy because the North Africans always fight until the final whistle.
“The good thing is that we are peaking at the right time. Against Senegal in the opening match we had a bad day at the office but we bounced back against Zambia.
“We also got the required results against Tunisia, which shows we are doing something right and now we must continue from there. Algeria will be tough but we are ready for the fight.”
Algeria finished top of Group B after two draws and one win. South Africa advanced to the semifinals with two wins and a defeat. They finished second in Group A.
“It’s going to be a good match, but I am confident we will do well and go to the final. We will go out guns blazing in this match as we did against Tunisia. I have a lot of confidence in my team because of how we played against Tunisia, and a lot of credit must go to the defence who did very well,” added Mekoa.
“We have to win against Algeria and go directly into the final. The aim is not to settle for anything less – we should not even think about the two chances we have of qualifying for Rio as that will put us under unnecessary pressure.
“Once we get the job done on Wednesday, we can then relax while we wait for the final, but anything less will make us very anxious and we might even lose focus.”
Qualifying for the Olympics means a lot to the players.
“It will be great to qualify for Rio because it will open doors for many players to perhaps secure bigger contracts as we will be playing on the big stage. So yes, it’s a very big deal to qualify for the Olympics, and we are all aware of that as players.
“It is perhaps the most important 90 minutes of our lives and careers. We have to go out there, fight for the flag and for ourselves, and I believe we can do it,” said Mekoa.
Hosts Senegal and Nigeria meet in the other semifinal match.
COSAFA already has two representatives in the Olympics as South Africa and Zimbabwe qualified for the women’s football tournament in Brazil.