Soccer, as natives call it, is today the most popular sport in South Africa; a phenomenon responsible, according the great Nelson Mandela, for “bringing indescribable joy to this country.”

But this wasn’t always the case. South Africa spent almost two decades in the international wilderness due to Apartheid, and upon its readmission to FIFA in 1992, soccer was dwarfed in popularity by cricket and rugby union. ‘The Beautiful Game’ nevertheless received a popularity hike in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ when it hosted and won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, but that conquest left South Africans desperate to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time.

Less than four months later, Bafana Bafana began their quest to realise that goal by beating Malawi 4-0 on aggregate to earn a ticket to the final round, where they cohabited Group 3 alongside Congo, Zaire and Zambia.

And the scrap for the pool’s solitary place at the world finals went down to the wire. Indeed, in their concluding qualifier, 15 years ago to this Thursday, South Africa hosted Congo in a virtual play-off for a berth at France 1998. Bafana Bafana, above their opponents on goal difference, had the advantage of requiring just a draw, but Les Diables Rouges were buoyed by a 2-0 win in the teams’ first encounter.

Over 80,000 packed into the FNB Stadium – or Soccer City as locals passionately referred to the Johanessburg venue as – and on just 14 minutes they raised the roof. John Moshoeu made a superb tackle in midfield and quickly fed the ball up to Phil Masinga. The former Leeds United striker strode upfield and, from 25 yards, unleashed a thunderous strike into the roof of the net to give South Africa the lead. It provoked his coach, Clive Barker, to sprint down the touchline doing an aeroplane celebration!

South Africa did have their moments thereafter – Doctor Khumalo’s craft often threatened to unlock the opposition defence and Moshoeu almost netted a wonder goal – but Congo dominated possession. However, the central Africans found defenders Lucas Radebe, Neil Tovey and Mark Fish in superb form and when they did manage to get past that formidable trio, goalkeeper Andre Arendse was equal to everything.

Finally, after 90 minutes that had seemed like an age to the South Africans, referee Charles Masembe blew the whistle that guaranteed South Africa’s place at the 16th FIFA World Cup and erupted the crowd in ecstasy.

“The scenes were unforgettable,” said Fish afterwards. “You would have thought we’d have won the World Cup! It was a huge day for soccer in South Africa.”

It was, indeed, the beginning of a love affair between South Africa and the FIFA World Cup – one that would enchant the whole world 13 years later. For after appearing at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, the country won the right to stage the competition in 2010 – and nobody will forget the exceptional show the South Africans put on.