'Bafana need a Messiah'
"The end of an error," one leading South African newspaper called it after Joel Santana, Brazilian coach to the World Cup host's football team, was fired with just over 230 days to go to the football extravaganza.
"Adeus amigo," the Sowetan newspaper bid the 60-year-old trainer in its front-page headline, while The Times newspaper, quoting a senior football official, declared of the hapless Bafana Bafana side: "We need a Messiah."
While the South African Football Association (SAFA) said the decision was taken "by mutual consent", several newspapers reported Santana was given the push after a string of defeats. During his 16-month tenure the 1996 African Cup of Nations champions slipped from number 76 worldwide to 85th.
Santana's fate had appeared sealed after Bafana's 1-0 defeat by Iceland in Reykjavik last week - its eight loss in nine games to mostly mediocre teams.
Bafana's dismal performances had caused much handwringing as South Africa prepares to host the World Cup, being held for the first time in Africa.
Fearing that the host side might not make it past the first round, most football commentators and fans had been angrily calling for Santana's head.
The ruling African National Congress's Youth League and the Congress of South African Trade Unions both said Tuesday they "welcomed" Safa's decision.
Only Santana himself appeared surprised. After the Iceland game, he dismissed speculation of his ouster, saying: "I do not know of any national coach in the world who was fired because he lost friendly matches. I do not think I will be fired."
When his marching orders came, he was "shocked" according to several sources. The man tipped to succeed him, Carlos Alberto Parreira, said in an interview Monday his fellow Brazilian had been "surprised."
For weeks speculation has been swirling that Parreira, 66, is set to make a comeback to South Africa, a year and a half after he resigned as Bafana coach, saying he wanted to return home for family reasons.
Parreira, who took Brazil to World Cup victory in 1994 and who recommended Santana to replace him, now appears keen to return.
"There is a possibility that there may be an invitation, and I would be willing to evaluate it, if it becomes concrete," he told the Brazilian television channel GloboNews in an interview Monday, while stressing that SAFA had not contacted him yet.
SAFA, which is due to announce its choice of new coach on Friday, has refused to say whether it is leaning towards Parreira.
Vice-president Mwelo Nonkonyana told Johannesburg's 702 radio station Tuesday South Africa's football community was divided on whether Bafana needed a local man or Parreira.
In the interim, assistant coaches Jairo Leal of Brazil and South Africa's Pitso Mosimane have been appointed caretaker coaches.
For Parreira, the main challenge would be to restore players' confidence in the wake of the run of defeats.
The incoming coach would have to "break the barrier of low self-esteem," Parreira told GloboNews.
"The greatest difficulty for South African football is the lack of goalscorers," Parreira said. "And you cannot find a goalscorer in a few months."
SAFA's choice of Santana, former coach to top Brazilian club Flamengos, had raised eyebrows from the start, given his lack of international experience.
After a dismal first year in which Bafana reeled from one defeat to another, South Africans thawed somewhat towards him after the team produced a creditable performance in the eight-nation Confederations Cup in South Africa in June.
South Africa made it to the semi-final, losing to tournament winners Brazil only by a late goal. - Sapa-dpa