THERE was an air of optimism and even, dare one say, excitement as Bafana Bafana departed OR Tambo International Airport for Pointe Noire on Thursday for Saturday’s 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Republic of Congo.

A hostile crowd is expected at the packed Stade Municipal for a match on an artificial pitch that absorbs the searing central African heat and cooks player’s boots.

But South African Football Association (Safa) president Danny Jordaan was on hand to encourage the players and allay their fears.

Much has been made of the infamous World Cup qualifier in Pointe Noire in 1997, when soldiers shut down television cameras and Congo kicked the daylights out of the then-African champions to win 2-0.

Jordaan was at pains to point out to the players that Africa has changed since the 1990s, and they should put press coverage of the 1997 match out of their minds.

"Circumstances were different. The only thing for you to think of is to go there and play well," the Safa president said.

Players posed for pictures with fans as they checked in for their charter flight. There seemed to be a particular buzz about the squad as they prepared for two matches against Group A leaders Congo — Bafana meet the Red Devils in Polokwane again on Wednesday.

SA put in far from perfect performances but showed great spirit to win their opener 3-0 away against Sudan and draw against Nigeria in Cape Town, and they are in second place on four points.

The hard running of Congo striker Prince Oniangue caused all sort of problems for Nigeria, and he scored against both the Super Eagles and Sudan. The Congolese seem sure to give Bafana Bafana a torrid first half-hour.

This is a Bafana under Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba who continually point out that they are set on restoring SA’s pride on the continent.

Forward Sibusiso Vilakazi, who scored a brace against Sudan, said there was an energy to the team.

"We want to climb the rankings in Africa. Everyone has said they want a change, so we have that motivation, and a good coach pushing us in that direction. It’s going to take time, and will come game by game," he said.

"It’s quite exciting looking at the guys — people who want to change the situation. In history we want to be remembered as the ones who did that by dying on that pitch."

It will take all that energy to overcome a Congo who, after qualifying via the back door because Rwanda fielded an ineligible player, turned Group A on its head with a shock 3-2 away win against Nigeria, and then a 2-0 victory at home to Sudan.

Bafana are aware that Nigeria could take six points from their two matches to Sudan, giving them seven. SA would like at least a draw and a win against Congo to stay ahead of the Super Eagles on eight points. Then a win at home to Sudan next month should secure qualification for Morocco 2015.

"Congo being No 1, it’s going to be a huge task playing them away in a hostile place. And a very humid and hot place," Vilakazi admitted.

"But I think we have a bunch of good players who are able to work for the nation and for their families. I think that’s the most important thing — the fighting spirit is the key," he said.

The hard running of Congo striker Prince Oniangue caused all sort of problems for Nigeria, and he scored against both the Super Eagles and Sudan. The Congolese seem sure to give Bafana Bafana a torrid first half-hour.

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