Stuart Baxter made one or two unpopular selections in naming his first Bafana squad on Thursday. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu /BackpagePix
JOHANNESBURG - Stuart Baxter probably hasn’t had to make as many phone calls recently as he did this week, preparing to pick a team capable of going to Nigeria for Bafana Bafana’s opening 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Uyo and win.

He was asked a bizarre question shortly after announcing his 25-man squad on Thursday about a time long ago when it was reported that he wasn’t on speaking terms with a national team player. The journalist was keen to find out if Baxter can handle egos.

There were several omissions from the Bafana squad to travel for the qualifier on June 10, such as striker Dino Ndlovu, who has been banging in the goals to help Qarabag clinch the Azerbaijan league title, and SuperSport United winger Thabo Mnyamane, whose rise in topflight football is turning out to be one incredible fairytale - something Baxter knows all too well seeing that he still doubles as the SuperSport coach until the end of next month.

The most notable absentee, however, was that of Ajax Amsterdam playmaker Thulani Serero, who got tongues waging on social media on Wednesday night when his club faced off against Manchester United in the final of the Europa League in Stockholm - but the talented midfielder watched the 2-0 defeat from home.

“You can go around asking any player I have worked with, and I am sure it will be hard to find one that will say I am a difficult person - except that one player during my time with the Finland national team,” Baxter said in response to a question that was unsettling even for the journalist to ask.

“Player management is immensely important to me and I know this especially because I have been in the game for 33 years,” the coach added, before revealing that he has in fact been in contact with Serero.

Baxter’s predecessor, Shakes Mashaba, hardly took questions on players being left out, but the new Bafana coach felt it was crucial to let everyone know that he’s watching their every move.

“This isn’t a one-match campaign,” he said. “So I have encouraged everyone to keep putting the miles in. I have been in contact with Serero and told him that I don’t think it would be fair on him or his teammates if I picked him for this Nigeria game. But I could have if I felt this was a different type of game. 

"If Dino keeps doing what he is doing, I will be forced to have a serious look. But there is a difference between scoring goals in Azerbaijan and the Premier League or Italy. I have faced teams in that league before, so I know that it is not a bad league, but it is erratic. I have also not picked him because I feel with our selection, we have enough balance and alternatives upfront.”

That seems like player management 101.

Even in explaining why Thamsanqa Gabuza, not a popular choice among fans especially given that he’s just recently started getting game time at Orlando Pirates, Baxter had an answer that not many could pick holes through.

“Is there anybody that is sure to score the goals in the PSL? We don’t produce players that can score goals, and the national team can’t sign players,” he said. “We are part of development. When I look at the balance of the squad, I want to have an alternative. 

"I thought about Lars (Veldwijk), but I don’t know him well and I think he doesn’t understand African football just yet. But with Gabuza, I think Kjell Jonevret (Pirates coach) is teaching him to play off the shoulder and as a target man.

"That is why I have chosen him - a big lad. I know at Pirates he is a bit more mobile, but he can give us options.”

In coming to a conclusion about who should make the trip to Uyo next month, Baxter said he also had input from several PSL coaches while he was phoning around to pick their brains on the fitness and mental strength of specific players, but he had not assistance from Mashaba’s backroom staff, whose future is still in limbo.

Bafana squad:

Goalkeepers: Itumeleng Khune, Ronwen Williams, and Darren Keet

Defenders: Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Tebogo Langerman, Sifiso Hlanti, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Mulomowandau Mathoho, Rivaldo Coetzee, Lorenzo Gordinho, Abbubaker Mobara

Midfielders: Dean Furman, Hlompho Kekana, Keagan Dolly, Andile Jali, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Themba Zwane, Bongani Zungu, Aubrey Ngoma

Strikers: Tokelo Rantie, Percy Tau, Lebogang Manyama, Kermit Erasmus, Thamsanqa Gabuza, Sibusiso Vilakazi

The Star

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