Nwabali, Williams, and the rise of the SA Premiership goalkeepers at AFCON

Can South Africa stun Nigeria in the AFCON semifinals? (1:51)

Leonard Solms debates whether South Africa can surprise Nigeria to reach the AFCON final. (1:51)

South Africa goalkeeper Ronwen Williams has been the name on everybody's lips since his remarkable four saves in the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) quarter-final penalty shootout against Cape Verde.

On the opposite side of the pitch in the semifinal on Wednesday will be Nigeria stopper Stanley Nwabali, who has come out of seemingly nowhere to become the defensive hero for the Super Eagles. Nwabali plays his club football for the DStv Premiership's Chippa United.

Williams, the Bafana Bafana captain's, performance was a masterclass in delivering under pressure. If the words of former teammate Nathan Paulse - who played with now-Mamelodi Sundowns shot-stopper Williams at SuperSport United - are anything to go by, this was true to character.

"It's good to see his growth. You've got to look at him from the character side of things. He never got fazed by his fame or his ability. There's a really humble side to him," Paulse told ESPN even before Williams' quarter-final heroics.

"It's always important to notice that certain players that have a certain outlook on themselves and on the game and on their craft - they enjoy growth. They're always there."

But who is Ronwen Williams?

Williams, who is originally from Gqeberha [formerly Port Elizabeth], was scouted by SuperSport United, one of the biggest clubs in Tshwane [Pretoria], in 2004.

Part of his youth career was spent at Tottenham Hotspur, who had a partnership with SuperSport United that saw defender Bongani Khumalo sign for the London club's first team. However, Spurs never snapped Williams up for their senior side.

The 2011/12 season was a breakthrough campaign for Williams. Having previously been on the fringes of the first team, he broke into the squad and was the PSL Young Player of the Year both that season and the following one.

By AFCON 2019, he was Bafana Bafana's number one goalkeeper. However, at club level, he had yet to establish himself as the clear dominant goalkeeper in the PSL, which continued to attract high-level talent from abroad in his position.

SuperSport United continued to excel in cup competitions and Williams won three Nedbank Cup trophies (equivalent to FA Cups), two MTN 8 trophies and one Telkom Knockout (equivalent to a League Cup) with them.

However, it was only a matter of time before their behemoth city rivals, Mamelodi Sundowns - by now one of the greatest teams in Africa - came calling. With Sundowns, Williams won his first league title last season and is on course for another. This season, he won the inaugural African Football League.

However, it was his performance against Cape Verde that helped him achieve global recognition.

South Africa hero Williams reacts to AFCON quarterfinal win

Ronwen Williams and Hugo Broos speak after the South Africa goalkeeper saved four penalties in the shootout vs. Cape Verde.

After his four saves in the shootout, Williams was quick to show the humility Paulse spoke of, paying tribute to the team of analysts led by Sinesipho Mali and goalkeeper coach Grant Johnson.

"The analysts prepared me. They cut so many videos. We studied the clips. I studied them to try and pick up trends. It's not me, I give credit to the analysts and the goalkeeper coach as well. They sent me so many clips. My phone is full of penalty clips," he said.

"So, credit to the analysts for doing the work because it is not easy to get footage of some of the players because they are playing all over the world. Big up to the analysts for preparing the clips for me, to watch and study. They made my job 50% easier because I had an idea where most of the players went."

Despite his graciousness, his success in cup competitions can largely be attributed to the fact that Williams has always been highly skilled at saving penalties - something that Nigeria will have to be wary of.

An all-PSL affair

Nwabali's Chippa are in a fight for their top flight survival, but it is not entirely surprising that they have produced a goalkeeper of international calibre. Indeed, Daniel Akpeyi previously played for the Super Eagles while still on the books of Chippa.

In a 2020 interview with ESPN, former South Africa goalkeeper Andre Arendse, who was in goal for their 1996 Africa Cup of Nations win, commented on how South Africa had become a haven for top goalkeepers, spotting both positive and negative aspects to it.

Arendse, who is now SuperSport United's assistant coach, said: "Back in my generation, there was not a lot of money in the local leagues. The desire to leave South Africa and ply your trade abroad was much greater.

"There's so much money that's come into the game in South African football [now]. There's more of a reluctance to go away from home, to leave family and go into a foreign country.

"It's a shame, because we need these young players to have the experience of playing against top players in Europe and other parts of the world. They bring that experience back to our national team.

"The quality of foreign goalkeeping that we have is of a high enough standard [among those] who are playing in the PSL. What that says to me is that aspiring young local goalkeepers will have to work their socks off to get those opportunities in the PSL."

Could Williams play in Europe?

If there is one goalkeeper who has worked his socks off, it is Williams. Hans Vonk - who competed against Arendse for the Bafana jersey and was his backup for their last AFCON semi-final - ironically a 2-0 defeat to Nigeria in 2000 - is a big admirer of the 32-year-old.

Asked whether or not any other South African goalkeepers have been unlucky not to receive an opportunity to try their luck abroad, Vonk said: "The only one that stood out for me was [Kaizer Chiefs'] Itumeleng Khune.

"The problem with him is - or was - that he was too short... I don't know if he ever had the chance to go abroad, but I always wanted to see him play in Europe because he was such a good goalkeeper. His distribution was exceptional."

Although Arendse had the edge over Vonk in terms of accolades for Bafana Bafana, Vonk was more prolific overseas. Being of Dutch parentage, he began his career in the Netherlands and played for giants Ajax, as well as RKC Waalwijk, Wageningen, Den Bosch and Heerenveen. His only South African club experience was with Ajax Cape Town - now Cape Town Spurs.

Arendse had a stint in England with Fulham and then Oxford United, while in later years, Bafana would produce another notable export in between the sticks - Rowen Fernández, who played for Germany's Arminia Bielefeld.

Although Jethren Barr is currently playing at Irish club Drogheda United, South Africa has not produced a goalkeeping export at an elite level abroad since Vonk - who left Heerenveen for the last time in 2009 - and Fernández, who suffered relegation from the Bundesliga the same year and left Germany in 2011.

While being 32 years old might count against him, Williams is still younger than Dutch legend Edwin van der Sar was when he joined Manchester United from Fulham aged 34.

"If he's shining now at AFCON, maybe that will help him get in the spotlight of a few European clubs. I don't think a top, top club would take him now, but there's still a nice career [in front of him] of four to six years in good leagues," said Vonk.

First, however, Williams must shut out the Super Eagles - a formidable opponent even with star striker Victor Osimhen doubtful.

Kick-off for the Wednesday semi-final in Bouaké is scheduled for 7pm CAT, with the winner set to play Côte d'Ivoire or DR Congo in the final and the losers to clash in the third-place playoff.