Cairo: Jonathan Kodjia hit the only goal when Ivory Coast defeated South Africa 1-0 in the steaming heat of Cairo on Monday in a meeting of former Africa Cup of Nations champions.
Ivory Coast won the title for the second time in 2015, but crashed two years ago without a victory in the group stage and is trying to rebuild a team to match that of its golden generation.
The Elephants are committed to a much better display in Egypt after Kodjia defeated the winner in 64 minutes against the 1996 champions.
"It was a difficult match and the most important thing for us was not to become a cropper in the opening game," said Ivory Coast coach Ibrahim Kamara. "We had to start well in the competition and that is what we did."
South Africa boss Stuart Baxter said he had no complaints about the result after his side rarely threatened the goal of Ivory Coast.
"Due to the lack of attacks on the target, we can't complain about losing the game, but I thought the players were putting in a great performance and it's a great learning curve for us," he said.
Kamara sees Nicolas Pepe as one of the young stars who can banish the memories of a disastrous title defense, and the advanced Lille striker soon showed his talent with an impending run, ending with an attempt by Kodjia to shoot from close range.
South Africa, which did not qualify for the 2017 edition, on the other hand, arrived in Egypt as one of the most unpredictable teams.
Bafana Bafana scored the high points at the start of the 2019 qualification by winning 2-0 in Nigeria and then slumped in mediocrity by pulling away 0-0 to low-ranked Seychelles.
In the first half of the Al Salam Stadium, where temperatures once again reached around 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 Fahrenheit), they were largely limited to counterattacks, while Captain Thulani Hlatshwayo came closest to a header on the roof of the net.
Côte d'Ivoire left early in Gabon after being held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo and lost against Morocco, but they took a quick half hour tour here almost twice in a row.
After a foul on the edge of the South Africa box Pepe, the 22-goal second highest French Ligue 1 scorer last season behind Kylian Mbappe, a thunderous free kick hit the crossbar with Ronwen Williams rowing to the spot.
South Africa's goalkeeper then produced an astonishing reflex save to keep Kodjia moments later, as the Aston Villa attacker kept on walking cleanly before opting unnecessarily for power over precision.
Amid the energy-absorbing heat, both sides made a difficult start to the second half, but it eventually burst to life when Kodjia was reconciled for his earlier miss.
Max Gradel was released in the space on the left and the winger threw a precise early ball at an unmarked Kodjia who passed Williams.
South Africa-substitute Lars Veldwijk tumbled late on the ground under pressure from Serge Kanon late as they insisted on an equalizer and Sibusiso Vilakazi shot on the turn, while Pepe was refused a second for Ivory Coast after a free kick after a free kick after a free kick Williams flying save.