Sibongakonke Mbatha during the 2016 Cosafa U20 Youth Championship match between South Africa and Swaziland at Moruleng Stadium,Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
JOHANNESBURG – Standing at a height of just 1.55 metres, Sibongakonke Mbatha is the shortest member of Stuart Baxter’s new-look Bafana Bafana squad that will take on Tanzania in today’s Cosafa Cup quarter-final tie at Royal Bafokeng Stadium (kick-off 5pm).

This means that most of the players he'll be up against will be towering over the Bidvest Wits attacking midfielder.

However, like most great players who have graced this beautiful game with their unique abilities on the ball in spite of being short of stature - like Diego Maradona (1.65m) and Romario of Brazil (1.67m), Mbatha also does not allow his physical size to stand in the way of him performing wonders on the pitch.

The 19-year-old attacking midfielder twists and turns, always eager to break loose of his markers, so that he can help his team tick in the final third.

His Bidvest Wits coach, Gavin Hunt, saw those special qualities being displayed in the three group matches he played in this year’s Fifa Under-20 World Cup in Korea, and decided to promote him into the first team leading up to the new season.

Stuart Baxter, coach of South Africa and Lehlogonolo Masalesa of South Africa during the 2017 Cosafa Castle Cup South Africa Press Conference. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Hunt said there would be no better time of introducing him into first team football action than now, as Wits are the Absa Premiership and MTN8 defending champions.

“This happens anywhere in the world,” Hunt said.

“If you win (the league title) you have to strengthen your team (leading up to the new season).

“We are also planning to introduce a few other young players. I did that during my stint at SuperSport (United). We brought them (young players) in because we were winning.

“Mbatha is with us,” Hunt added. “He hasn’t started training with the first team as yet because he was selected to form part of this year’s Bafana squad participating in the Cosafa Cup. It’s not going to be easy for him to break into the starting XI, but he’s definitely with us (the first team).”

In today’s match Baxter, pictured, will miss the influence of Aubrey Ngoma, who suffered a knee injury leading up to this clash this past week. However, SuperSport midfielder Cole Alexander has been roped in as a last-minute replacement and might be given a head start in the central attacking role, while Mbatha, who can play on either side of the wing and as a central attacker as well, may be forced to start on the left wing.

The 19-year-old midfielder said he was excited about his call-up and that he hopes to make a long lasting impression, should he be given a Bafana debut in today’s match.

“It’s a privilege for me to have been called up into this Bafana squad,” Mbatha said.

“Looking at my journey so far, it’s been a breathtaking experience for me and I cannot take all the credit.

“For me, football is not about just the physical,” he added.

“If you’ve got the ability and brains, some coaches will see that and give you a head start, instead of using the physically well built but less imaginative players. I’m hoping that my attributes here are recognised as being effective for the national team.

“But given a chance I’ll definitely give it my best, in spite of whether people may think I'm too small to be effective.”

The one challenge that Baxter’s men might face in their first match of the tournament is that Tanzania, who managed to finish top of Group A with a better goal difference than Angola, with whom they were equal on five points, have had more competitive game time than Bafana in order to gel.

Baxter though, who came out in the media to state that they were using the Cosafa tournament to nurture up-and-coming talent from the junior national teams, will hope his inexperienced side will hit the ground running in pursuit of their bid to become the first South African national side to defend their Cosafa Cup title.

Sunday Independent

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