Durban - Bafana Bafana will have the support of the nation behind them when they play one of their biggest matches in recent history - the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals against Mali here on Saturday.
Gordon Igesund’s men, playing in the last eight for the first time in 11 years, began the tournament with an uninspiring performance in a goalless draw against debutants Cape Verde Islands, but have gradually won over the hearts of South Africans since then.
They claimed a convincing 2-0 victory over Angola, followed by a valiant 2-2 draw with Morocco, and now have the desired “momentum, confidence and backing of the country”, for which the coach had desperately yearned.
Opponents Mali, perennial threats at the continental competition after reaching the semi-finals on five of the seven times they have qualified, including a third-place finish at the last tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, have yet to hit full stride.
Their route to the knockstage saw them edge minnows Niger with a 1-0 win, lose by the same scoreline to Group B winners Ghana and draw 1-1 against Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Eagles’ No 3 ranking in Africa should make them the slight favourites against Bafana Bafana, who are 22nd, but the game is expected to be a closely fought one.
“It’s obviously going to be tough at this stage of the competition, no matter who you’re playing,” Igesund said.
“Mali are a very talented team with very good players. They play a little bit differently from most of the teams we’ve played so far.
"They like to slow things down, they like to knock the ball around, they're very comfortable on the ball, but there are no easy games in the quarter-finals.”
Igesund played down suggestions during the week from opposite number Patrice Carteron that South Africa would be the favourites.
“He’s trying to play a bit of mind games by doing that,” said the Bafana mentor.
“They are ranked third in Africa and we are ranked 22nd, you figure it out.
“There’s as much pressure on him as there is on me. Both sides will be under pressure to win.”
One thing the hosts - the only non-west African side represented in the last eight of the continental showpiece - can count on is the 12th man crowd factor with a capacity 56 000 spectators expected at Moses Mabhida Stadium.
The ‘sold-out’ signs were put up less than 24 hours after their group clash with the Moroccans and the hosts will be banking on their good record in the city to carry them through. They have won seven and lost only one of their 13 matches in Durban since readmission.
“Everyone can see for themselves that the support here in Durban is really fantastic,” Igesund said.
“It plays a huge part all over the world, the host nation has a bit of an advantage.”
Mali’s French coach, Carteron, who downplayed any physical advantage his team could have, said this week that South Africa were “one of the most well prepared teams” he had seen at the 2013 finals.
“I think they will have a 60-40 advantage going into the game, it’s logical,” Carteron said.
“When you play at home with the atmosphere, the crowd and the whole country behind you, it’s normal.
“But I know we have a chance. We will give 100 percent to try and qualify.
"I do respect South Africa, I do respect their coach.”
Each team has one suspension affecting their team selection, with right-back Anele Ngcongca ruled out for Bafana Bafana and goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa missing for Mali.