Stuart Baxter. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/SIMPHIWE NKWALI
Stuart Baxter. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/SIMPHIWE NKWALI

Cairo — Stuart Baxter can be a bit of a whinger, but ahead of Bafana Bafana’s opening match against Ivory Coast here on Monday, the SA coach sent a rallying cry to a squad that has the potential to be one of the most solid combinations to have been at a recent Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon).

At a media conference ahead of the Group D game at the match venue, Cairo’s new, 30,000-seat Al Salam Stadium, Baxter looked a little nervous. That should be expected. He has won league titles in Sweden and SA  and played in the Uefa Champions League, but this is his first major national tournament.

But having complained quite a lot  of the two friendlies that fell through in the South Africans’ build-up, leaving them just a single warm-up game against Ghana in Dubai on June 15, Baxter on Saturday sensibly focused on the positives.

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Among these are that Bafana’s only two withdrawals have been Keagan Dolly’s injury and Rivaldo Coetzee’s no-show. That is unusual and a huge positive going into a major tournament.

Another is an unprecedented three-week training camp, as a result of the tournament being moved to the European and SA off-season. That benefits all the teams but for Bafana the usual club versus country battle has been notably absent.

The decision to spend a week in Dubai, which is a few degrees hotter than Egypt’s mid-summer, for acclimatisation could prove a masterstroke. Even more so, perhaps, in the earliest Group D kickoff for Bafana on Monday, at 4.30pm, when temperatures are still in the high 30s.

Without becoming overoptimistic, because it has to be remembered SA are very much still underdogs to group heavyweights Ivory Coast and Morocco, Bafana at their team hotel have appeared relaxed and, dare one say it, quietly confident.

What the opening exchanges at this Nations Cup, such as Egypt’s 1-0 win over Zimbabwe, have reinforced is that if the bigger teams are allowed to settle into a rhythm it can be very difficult to get back into the game for the underdog side.

Bafana will need to replicate their performances from their two best qualifying results — the away wins against Libya and Nigeria — to try to take control and rattle Ivory Coast.

But can they do that against such a classy combination?

“There may have been times before when SA  national teams could be accused of not achieving their potential because of not having the right focus,” Baxter said. “Win, lose or draw that will not be the case with this group of players. This group have a very small ego, a very great SA heart, they enjoy playing for their country.

“And I’m sure they are going to leave everything out there in every game. We’re playing against the best teams on the continent. The way to not be intimidated is to pay them the respect they deserve, but don’t fear them.

“We have to be better than they think, quicker than they think, better organised than they think. And if we can do that then they will have to rehtink their gameplan.”

Bafana will hope greater unity and organisation can see them beat Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara’s combination, which includes Tottenham Hotspur rightback Serge Aurier.

A frontline of Lille’s Nicolas Pépé, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Wilfried Bony operates in front of a classy central midfield of Jean Michaël Seri (Fulham) and Franck Kessié (AC Milan).

It is a big ask. Perhaps, though, this Bafana might just be up to it.