Open field favours Bafana
"WHAT? Are they mad?"
That's how many Bafana fans might react this week to the surprising news that all the betting companies rate the hosts as third favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations, at odds of about 8/1.
Yep, Gordon Igesund's chronically goal-averse Bafana are ranked just below favourites Ivory Coast and Ghana, but above defending champions Zambia and Nigeria. Tell a long-suffering Bafana follower that his side are serious contenders and he'll guffaw at you. Right now, a suggestion that the moon is made of old mealiepap would sound more plausible.
Few of us can picture Bafana advancing to the semifinals, let alone winning the whole shebang. And neither, it seems, can Bafana themselves: there's a shortage of swagger and authority to their play, which is understandable given their lack of success. So the public keeps doubting them, and they re-absorb that doubt.
So it's all a bit of a vicious circle, full of chickens and eggs.
But our inferiority complex matters little to the bookies, who know their stuff. If they get their odds badly wrong, they could end up coughing up millions in payouts to savvy punters, so they tend to do their research properly.
And it seems Bafana are rated as credible contenders due to a kind combination of home-ground advantage and a wide-open field.
With every new Nations Cup, the power graph of African football flattens out a bit more, to the extent that most countries are now middleweight powers. There is only one superpower in Ivory Coast (and a perennially under-performing one at that) while certifiable minnows are scarce. This trend is partially about improving general standards, but it's also down to a lack of continuity and evolution in the biggest national teams.
Egypt, Senegal and Cameroon - all richly laden with big names - didn't even qualify for this tournament.
And other traditional powerhouses like Nigeria and Ghana have sent young squads shorn of experience and superstar wattage.
It's hard to know what to expect from the Black Stars, who will be without a string of heavyweights in Andre Ayew, Michael Essien, Sulley Muntari, John Mensah and Samuel Inkoom.
Coach James Kwesi Appiah has selected 10 Nations Cup debutants in his final 23.
His boldness might be richly rewarded with a flash of early form, but such inexperienced units almost never go all the way.
Stephen Keshi has gone the same route by naming a Super Eagles squad lacking such luminaries as Peter Odemwingie, Taiye Taiwo, Obafemi Martins and Yakubu Aiyegbeni.
There are some fine prospects at Keshi's disposal: Celtic centreback Efe Ambrose, Braga leftback Elderson Echiejile and Chelsea winger Victor Moses. But it has to be worrisome that only two outfielders - Joseph Yobo and Uche Ikechukwu - are over 25. Some might argue that no Nigerian side is quite as young as it seems on paper.
Even so, the title would be a helluva stretch for Keshi's eaglets. So giving them slightly longer odds (9/1) than an experienced Bafana side is justifiable.
But the bookies have surely made a mistake in offering Zambia at even longer odds, at about 12/1, as fourth favourites. The Copper Bullets have bonded and matured since they triumphed in Libreville last year - and are arguably stronger for the addition of talented FC Utrecht striker Jacob Mulenga. They know in their bones how to do it all again. Don't be shocked if they do.