South Africa men's national team coach Hugo Broos has turned to young players to lead a revival of the squad, which he believes could drive Bafana Bafana back to the top of African football.
Already performing above expectations, a youthful Bafana are on the verge of unexpectedly making the final round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers, ahead of crucial clashes with Zimbabwe and Ghana this week.
South Africa won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, and subsequently qualified for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, but have not competed at the global showpiece since hosting it in 2010.
They hit a new low in March, when defeat to Sudan saw them fall short of qualifying for the AFCON in January 2022, missing the cut for the second time in their last three attempts. Broos, a 2017 AFCON winner with Cameroon, was subsequently appointed as head coach, replacing Molefi Ntseki.
Results have dramatically improved under Broos following a squad overhaul, and South Africa currently sit top of Group G, with only Ghana in with a chance of toppling them and Ethiopia and Zimbabwe already left behind.
Bafana host Zimbabwe in Johannesburg on Thursday, but Sunday's crunch clash with the Black Stars at Ghana's Cape Coast Sports Stadium will likely decide who makes the playoffs.
Broos explained his reasons for discarding veteran players in favour of inexperience, saying he wanted a hunger in his players that he felt was lacking under the previous coach.
"I saw the game against Sudan and Bafana Bafana needed only one point, and when I see the way they played the game there in Sudan... I couldn't understand it. You go until the end -- until you die -- but you need that point. This was not the mentality I saw," Broos told ESPN.
"So then I started to see who was playing. There were so many players of 27, 28, 29 years old. Afterwards, there was someone who was telling me: 'Yes, coach, but those players are experienced.'
"I said: 'Yes, that's right, but if you do not play the younger players, then when are they going to have experience?'
"So, therefore, I started also with young players who had quality. This is the first thing they need to have and that's why we have such good results."
Broos, who credits assistant coach Helman Mkhalele for helping him understand the local landscape, not only turned to young players, but entrusted South African-based prospects who had just emerged from obscurity with the ultimate honour of starting for the national team.
Central to his revolution have been strike duo Bongokuhle Hlongwane of Maritzburg United and Evidence Makgopa of Baroka FC [both 21], as well as TS Galaxy midfielder Ethan Brooks .
More familiar faces such as Bongani Zungu (Amiens), Dean Furman (Altrincham FC), Lebogang Phiri (Caykur Rizespor), Thulani Serero (Al Jazira), Lebo Mothiba (Strasbourg), and even former captain Thulani Hlatshwayo (Orlando Pirates) have been overlooked.
However, Broos told ESPN that this did not mean the door was shut for more experienced players. Indeed, shortly after this interview, he recalled Kaizer Chiefs winger Keagan Dolly, formerly of Montpellier, to the squad.
"For my first selection, I did it maybe a little bit too strong, but I just wanted to find young players and I wanted to see what their ability was -- what the quality was of those players, what the mentality was. I saw it was good," Broos explained.
"They need to have the right mentality. Therefore, I think we will see in the next games -- we will try still to improve that team, and if we need older players for that with quality, why not?
"I never said that the door was locked for older players, but I gave the chance to younger [players] first of all. After that, we will see, but for the moment, the youngsters do it well, so I think I made the right choice."
Within two months of becoming a regular for TS Galaxy, a relatively low-profile South African Premiership club, Brooks was fast-tracked into the Bafana Bafana midfield for a 3-2 friendly win over Uganda in June.
Broos was not yet on the sidelines, with assistants Mkhalele and Čedomir Janevski taking charge while the head coach received his second COVID-19 vaccination in Belgium, his home country.
Brooks expected the call-up to be a once-off, but to his surprise, Broos kept faith in him for World Cup qualifiers after taking charge of the team.
"I'd say I'm really pleased [with my first few appearances]. There's a few things that I can improve on here and there, but I'd say I'm really pleased with my performances so far," Brooks told ESPN of a dream start to his Bafana Bafana career.
"I would rate [the 1-0 home win] against Ghana as my best and the first game against Ethiopia [a 3-1 away win] not my best."
"The first, with Ghana, he [Broos] was really happy and pleased. He did mention that I was the smallest on the field but I showed character, so when I heard him talk about that, I was pleased. With the Ethiopia one, he was just letting me know that it [playing badly] happens within the game, so it was really good to get that feedback from him."
The straight-talking Broos can come across as harsh in his frequent public criticism of South African players and clubs alike, but Brooks, though he has seen glimpses of anger in his coach privately, says he knows him to be a nurturing man.
Broos said of his blunt approach to his Bafana Bafana young guns: "For sure, there will be games when it will not work, but this is working with young players. So, you will have very good periods, but you will have, also, very bad games, because they have to learn. They need experience. This patience, we need, also from my side.
"When, tomorrow, a younger player is playing a bad game, I don't have to pull him out immediately and not select him anymore. No. I have to give him a second chance, but it's up to them to take their chances."
Although he signed a five-year contract with the South African Football Association [SAFA] and is bringing players through with a long-term vision, Broos has not absolved himself of all immediate expectations.
"If we are not at AFCON 2023, then I have failed, because we have two years to work on it and we have two years to build a team and it has to be possible for a country like South Africa [after] two years to be in AFCON," he said.
"This is something you need to do as a coach and I'm aware that maybe it's a strong declaration, but I think it [qualifying] is a reality.
"I said it also to the people of SAFA when we negotiated the contract. I said: 'Five years in a football lifetime is very long. Let's make an evaluation after two years, when we are or not at AFCON, and then we will see: can we go together or not? Are you satisfied, and am I satisfied with the way I can work here?' I think it's a fair agreement."
Paul Pogba limps out of France training after wayward shot
Paul Pogba withdraws from the France squad after picking up a thigh injury in training.
Broos does not feel that he is under immediate pressure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, where only five African teams will feature in Qatar. On the contrary, he is at pains to manage expectations.
"Ghana is Ghana, and Ghana is a very strong team. They qualify for nearly every World Cup. They qualify every AFCON. They have very good players who are playing in very good teams in Europe, so this is an advantage for them," Broos said.
"We beat them here months ago in Jo'burg, but I'm aware of the fact that if we have to go to Ghana, even with one or two points ahead, that it will be very tough to win there or to qualify, because they are a very strong team and they have very good players, but we believe in it and we will see. In football, everything is possible."
If Broos is careful not to get ahead of himself while thinking of the immediate future, he is far less guarded when talking about his vision for Bafana Bafana over the course of five years.
Having won the AFCON with Cameroon to add to his three Belgian top flight titles -- two with Club Brugge and one with Anderlecht -- Broos is hungry for silverware in South Africa.
"By the end of my contract, I want to win AFCON with South Africa. This is for sure. I went to Cameroon with the same mentality -- I want to win. I have always been a coach who wanted to win, and if you see my CV, I have won a lot of things," he said.
"With this mentality, even when I'm 69, I came to South Africa. I don't want to be here for years and winning nothing. What do you have, to be five years in a country like South Africa to qualify for AFCON maybe and then after the first round, to go home? This is not my style.
"I want to win, so let's hope in those five years that we can win AFCON -- and it's possible. Really, it's possible."