|World Cup hopefuls: Molefi Ntseki with captain Nelson|
Maluleka (right) at Eastgate Garden Court yesterday
Coach Molefi Ntseki's AmaJimbos kick-off at the home of Moroka Swallows in Soweto at 3pm, carrying the nation's most realistic hopes of World Cup qualification in years. When they played the first leg at Azam FC a bumpy hour from Dar Es Salaam, over 5000 Tanzanians turned up to watch their Young Serengeti Warriors carve out a lucky 0-0 draw.
On Saturday, entrance is free. OUR BOYS NEED YOU. Yes, YOU.
I was there a fortnight ago. The atmosphere was electric. The locals were lively. The pitch was made of rubber. Our lads - singing and dancing their way through seriously difficult conditions on foreign soil - came away with a vital away draw. Our local television companies show no enthusiasm for showing live coverage of Bafana's youth, but it was some performance. Believe me.
Now they must beat Tanzania for the right to play Congo or Egypt in the final play-off before the African Youth Championship in Niger later this year. If they get to the semi-finals there, the top four African nations will qualify for World Cup in Chile next year.
Now that would be something to shout about for imposing boss Ntseki, his assistant Shawn Bishop, and goalkeeping coach Starvros Tsichlas, the indomitably cheerful trio who have created a unit worthy of the flag.
When I first embarked on the great AmaJimbos experiment, I expected the usual thing. Slightly chaotic selection processes, disorganization and heart-breaking failure. I mean, that's normal. Just look at our most recent senior efforts at AFCON, the World Cup and even lowly CHAN. But this was different. Everything is in place. They lugged their own water and sports drinks halfway up Africa, shrugged off several efforts of minor sabotage from our northern cousins… and never stopped smiling.
These AmaJimbos have convinced me. From the towering goalkeeper Mondli Mpotho to elegantly rugged centre-back Keanu Cupido (great name, great defender) to the nuggety captain Nelson Maluleke, who has a bigger engine than most Maseratis, they have the spine of a side which could carry this nation for years to come.
While SAFA president Danny Jordaan scrabbles for solutions to South Africa's footballing follies at the highest level with Shakes Mashaba off with our Under 20s on a friendly tour of West Africa, Ntseki may just carry the true keys to the calamitous castle in his huge hands. Come 2018 in Russia and/or 2022 in Qatar, the names I'm introducing you to may the ones on EVERY South Africans lips.
This weekend, after that first leg failure to score in Tanzania, coach Ntseki moves Vuyo Mantjie, the Harmony Academy midfielder, up front in an attempt to solve the all-pervading Bafana striking problems.
And Ntseki growls: "We have to find a way to score goals. We create chances, we have the team to go all the way to the World Cup. But you can't get there without somebody who sticks the ball in the goal."
In the build-up, the AmaJimbos played Botswana and Lesotho twice in friendlies. The team spirit built over the past month is tangible. Unlike most prospective professional footballers, these lads are modest, self-effacing… even shy. There is no talk of big cars and lucrative contracts. Just a quiet determination to be the best they can be.
But with Congo or Egypt next up - the young Pharaohs won the opening leg 1-0 at home - "Junior" Mantjie will be taking the second flight of his young life if they succeed on Saturday. Maluleka (see his video below, he's quite a lad) believes the job can be done: "I don't care, neither side can stop us."
You can see both Ntseki and Maluleka explaining their optimism below, in videos I recorded at the team hotel in Eastgate yesterday. Have a good look at young Nelson from Mpumalanga. It's not the last you'll see of that face. He's going all the way. But can the AmaJimbos?
Can it really be done after the grown-up failures the diski nation has suffered over the past four years? Can this bunch of eminently likable and unquestionably talented young lads REALLY get to a World Cup?
The answer is yes, they can. Dobsonville. Cairo. Niger. Chile. It's a long shot. But it would be made all the easier if a couple of thousands Sowetans can get there to support them on Saturday.
SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on www.ballz.co.za with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.