JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - English Premiership star Steven Pienaar has warned his South Africa team-mates not to underestimate little Niger when they clash Saturday in a 2012 African Nations Cup qualifier.
Bafana Bafana (The Boys) footballes and supporters tend to dismiss any opponent from the continent that does not belong to the power bloc led by seven-time African champions Egypt.
Recent World Cup hosts South Africa lie 27 places above Niger on the FIFA Africa rankings and are considered hot favourites to make a winning start in Group G before a sell-out 40,000 crowd in north-east city Nelspruit.
"International football has become much more competitive. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day and we have to be on our guard against a side such as Niger who we know little about," the Everton midfielder confessed to reporters.
"We must forget about the World Cup and beating Ghana in a friendly last month. We are starting from zero. Supporters believe this is going to be an easy game but let me tell you it is not going to be a walk in the park."
Pienaar, linked with champions Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur during the close-season before committing his future to the 'Toffees', said they cannot afford another Nations Cup flop.
Bafana Bafana took just one point of a possible six off minnows Sierra Leone in the 2010 Nations Cup qualifiers and failed to make even the final qualifying round for Angola.
This confirmed the downward spiral of South Africa since winning the premier African national team competition when they hosted the 1996 tournament as late replacements for Kenya.
They finished runners-up in 1998, third in 2000, were quarter-finalists in 2002 and departed after the first round in the following three tournamenets before the ultimate humiliation of not even making the final-16 this year.
"Only the group winners are guaranteed a place at the finals and we are in a tough group with African champions Egypt and Sierra Leone to come. We have to get there (the finals) and that means starting with a win," stressed Pienaar.
Niger, who have never come close to reaching the Nations Cup tournament, arrived in South Africa via Democratic Republic of Congo city Lubumbashi where they lost a warm-up match 1-0 to African club champions TP Mazembe.
The Central Africans have improved dramatically this year with the highlight being a shock victory over Nigeria which qualified them for the African Nations Championship tournament that is restricted to home-based footballers.
League and cup holders ASFAN last month became the first Niger club to reach the group phase of the second-tier African Confederation Cup and several of their stars are set to face South Africa at Mbombela Stadium.
Coach Harouna Doula can also call on goalkeeper Kassaly Daouda from Cameroon club Cotonsport Garoua, North Africa-based strikers Kamilou Daouda and Alhassane Issoufou and on-loan Moussa Maazou from French club Bordeaux.
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