Nigeria beware Thembinkosi Lorch, Bafana's quiet assassin
The emergence of South Africa's Thembinkosi Lorch has been one of the most fascinating subplots at the Africa Cup of Nations, as the softly spoken winger overcame family tragedy to set up Bafana Bafana's quarterfinal showdown with Nigeria on Wednesday.
In providing the match winner against Egypt in the Round of 16, sending shockwaves across the continent, Lorch showed why he was named Premier Soccer League Player of the Year in South Africathis past season.
Even more impressively, he took to the field on Saturday only hours after the funeral of his uncle, who died in a car crash since the travelling party left South Africa.
"This win means a lot, especially for the country, and I'm also happy for my family back home," he told journalists.
"This was for my [father's] late brother who passed away in the Free State last week. I dedicate this goal to him."
It has not been an easy road for the striker in general, even without family tragedy to contend with, as he's had to wait several years for a proper chance in the green and gold.
The Orlando Pirates superstar was included in the Afcon squad on the back of a magnificent season at South African club level, in which he was the outstanding protagonist, as the Buccaneers came within two points of ending their seven-year wait for a PSL title.
Lorch was subsequently included in Stuart Baxter's provisional squad, before making the final 23-man list, partly helped by the injury to wideman Keagan Dolly, which denied Bafana one of their more lethal attacking options.
However, the 25-year-old, a late-bloomer, who was still playing at modest Chippa United until 2017, was made to wait for his chance to make a mark in Egypt.
To the frustration of fans back home, Lorch wasn't given a single minute of action during the group stages.
The Waiting Game...
While Bafana Bafana struggled for creativity and imagination against Ivory Coast, Namibia, and Morocco, Lorch -- who scored nine goals and contributed five assists last term -- was left watching on.
He was waiting in the wings for an opportunity that wouldn't have come had Angola avoided defeat by Mali in their final group game, allowing Bafana to scrape through to the knockouts.
Assistant coach Mark Fish scoffed when asked, after the narrow triumph over Namibia, why Lorch hadn't seen any game time to that point.
"This is the Afcon," he said. "Being the PSL top player of the season... this is the Afcon."
However, the winger was introduced for the showdown with Egypt at Cairo International Stadium; while it wasn't a thoroughly convincing display, he settled the tie with a 85th-minute winner.
It was a strike that devastated the host the country, ending Mohamed Salah's apparent procession to the title, and reviving national pride in the downtrodden Bafana Bafana.
For so long, this has been a team that's existed in the shadow of their previous achievements, their past panache, and the flair and flamboyance the nation's favourite sport is built upon.
Victory over the Pharaohs didn't revive the myth of Mzansi football, but it did change the narrative, restoring faith in Bafana -- if not in Baxter -- and raising hope that South Africa may no longer be one of the fallen giants of the African game.
Victory For The PSL
None of the teams left standing in the tournament draw more heavily from their own domestic league than South Africa, who have included 17 PSL players in their 23-man squad.
Fish, himself a veteran of Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic in England, may have hinted at a deficiency in the league's quality earlier in the campaign, but PSL stars have underpinned South Africa's run to the last eight.
Lorch's winner -- as a PSL player outshining UEFA Champions League-winning Salah -- was testament to the quality that exists within the division.
The Premier League Golden Boot winner's campaign was over, all thanks to the PSL's Player of the Year. The goal also represented Lorch's true arrival as an international player.
Welcome To The Big Bime
After playing two fixtures in the Cosafa Cup back in 2016, as South Africa won the tournament for southern African teams, the Ficksburg-born attacker was made to wait two and a half years for his bow with the full international side.
That came in the 1-1 draw with Nigeria in their opening qualifier for the 2019 Afcon -- Lorch's only previous competitive international before he was named among the starters on Saturday -- and he wouldn't be selected again by Bafana until a pre-Nations Cup friendly against Ghana in mid-June.
His performances this season have been too irresistible for Baxter to ignore, and while his showing against Egypt wasn't flawless -- he wasted several fine chances after being picked out by teammates -- he grew into the contest and ultimately proved the match-winner.
A Nan of Few Words
Lorch has the quality to become an established component of this Bafana side, and his goal against Egypt could be the springboard for him to emerge as one of the stars of the Afcon knockouts -- particularly with Nigeria, unconvincing defensively against Cameroon, up next.
Now, the 25-year-old, who conducts himself with humility off the field, must deal with the expectation that comes with being a nascent national hero.
He humbly accepted his PSL Player of the Year award with just a few simple words at the league's end-of-year function - dedicating the award to his teammates -- and he was similarly keen to deflect the credit elsewhere when speaking to journalists at the conclusion of his display against Egypt.
"I'd like to thank the Man Above," Lorch said after his decisive strike, "for giving me the talent and the opportunity that he gave me. I promised that I would honour it."
PSL fans are already aware of how Lorch's flair on the field contrasts with his quiet, slightly timid demeanour off it.
"I'm a quiet person," he said. "Some people will think that I don't have confidence in myself, but Mark [Fish] came to me, spoke to me and said, 'Are you confident?' and I said, 'yeah. Just play me, you'll see.'
"I think, being quiet, people think that I don't have confidence in myself.
"I had to wait for my chance and grab it. I knew from Thursday in training that the coach was preparing me [to start], and that's when I started to focus on the game."
Despite Lorch's reputation, goalkeeper Ronwen Williams revealed that he had no doubts the forward would make the most of his opportunity.
"We didn't need to psyche him up, he's a quality player," Williams said. "He showed in the PSL last season. I'm glad, this is going to do our confidence good as well as his."
Certainly, there will be no shortage of confidence when South Africa return to the Cairo International Stadium, and having finally revealed to the watching world what PSL fans already knew, Lorch could well be at the centre of events when old rivals Bafana and Nigeria collide on Wednesday.