Three days after South Africa stunned the world of international soccer by knocking host Egypt out of the 2019 African Cup of Nations, the sound of elation remains clearly detectable in the voice of the team’s Jewish midfielder, Dean Furman.
“It was a fantastic victory, just fantastic, ” Furman told The Algemeiner during a break in training on Tuesday, as South Africa prepared for its crucial quarterfinal game against Nigeria, another of the continent’s toughest sides, tomorrow.
“No one really gave us any hope at all,” said Furman of Saturday’s 1-0 win, courtesy of an 86th-minute goal from striker Thembinkosi Lorch. “Everyone was expecting a comfortable win for Egypt, in front of their 75,000 fans.”
Considered by many to be the best team in Africa, Egypt had been expected to win this year’s African Cup with a side containing players of the caliber of Ahmed El Mohamady, Mahmoud Trézéguet and, of course, the globally-renowned forward Mohamed Salah.
“The only people who really believed we could beat them were the 30 of us in our dressing room,” said Furman.
Under coach Stuart Baxter, the 31-year-old Furman has established himself as the anchor of South Africa’s team, playing a defensive midfield role that allows the forward line more attacking freedom.
“It’s not the most glamorous role, but I thoroughly enjoy it,” Furman laughed. “My role on the pitch enables our forwards to make runs and play with more freedom, by relieving them of their defensive duties.”
Furman’s performance on Saturday was certainly a vindication of the tactical approach of Baxter, who has faced criticism from some South African fans for an overly conservative style of play.
“They had Salah, they had Trézéguet as well, and in the run-up to the game we worked on stopping their strengths,” Furman said. “If you give Salah any space, he’s going to hurt you, but we stopped him from using his favorite left foot. It was the same with Trézéguet on the right. We nullified them.”
South Africa last won the African Cup in 1996, and even after their victory against Egypt, the “Bafana Bafana” are still regarded as the underdogs as they prepare to face the “Super Eagles” of Nigeria in the quarterfinal tie at the vast Cairo International Stadium on Wednesday night.
“Nigeria will be very tough,” Furman acknowledged — but not impossible. As Furman pointed out, in their last two games against the Nigerians, South Africa acquitted themselves admirably, with a 2-0 victory in the away tie and a 1-1 draw at home.
“We know we can beat them,” he said. “When we’re on song like we were against Egypt, we can cause any team real problems.”
Furman is not worried by the underdog label, however. “We are the firm underdogs, and we’ll take that tag and go out with less pressure to cause another upset,” he pledged.
Furman has always spoken with pride about his Jewish heritage, and he expressed the hope that his success at this year’s African Cup would inspire other young Jewish soccer players — “boys and girls,” he stressed — who are looking to turn professional.
“To young Jewish footballers, I want to say that it is possible,” Furman said. “There aren’t too many of us, but the dream of being a professional is definitely achievable.”