Tonight Shakes Mashaba will lead a new-look Bafana Bafana side against fellow African football minnows, Sudan. In the absence of his injured senior general, Itumeleng Khune, Anele Ngcongca will become Bafana Bafana’s most capped player on the pitch, marshalling a team of cubs to battle lions in the jungle of African football.
It will be the beginning of a bumpy, arduous journey of rebuilding Bafana Bafana into the continental football powerhouse it was almost two decades ago.
To his advantage, Coach Mashaba is under no pressure from his bosses to produce miraculous immediate results such as qualifying for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
His only mandate, according to Safa president Danny Jordaan, is to “build a sustainable Bafana Bafana team for the next few years” which is in line with the football federation’s Vision 2022 whose objectives include “a long term development plan to achieve the goal of always being in the top 3 of the African rankings and in the top 20 of the world ranking.”
Shakes Mashaba is a bold coach. Nothing illustrates his boldness more than his first squad selection for the two upcoming Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Sudan and Nigeria respectively.
The inclusion of youngsters such as Dumisani Msibi, Ayabulela Magqwaka, Rivaldo Coetzee, and Nhlakanipho Ntuli heralds the beginning of a new era for Bafana Bafana in which potential at youth level is rewarded.
Notwithstanding the fact that the inexperienced trinity of Msibi, Magqwaka and Ntuli have yet to play a single minute of football in their respective first teams, they are worthy recipients of the call ups.
They have all been instrumental in pioneering Amajita’s qualification for the upcoming African Youth Championships.
Even if they don’t get some game time during the two matches, the experience of training in difficult conditions in foreign countries and being on the receiving end of thunderous boos from a hostile crowd will serve them well in their quest for the Youth Championships and Olympic Games qualifications.
Coach Mashaba’s selection policy is a departure from previous coaches’ selections which were evidently influenced by certain football agents’ intimacy with the technical team of Bafana Bafana, certain players’ reputations, and even YouTube clips instead of a thorough assessment of their form.
It represents a mixture of the best rising youngsters who have excelled under his guidance at youth level, several players who have made cameo appearances for the national team without a fair chance to prove their worth such as Mandla Masango, Kamogelo Mokotjo, Thulani Hlatswayo and Darren Keet, and a freshman to international football David Zulu; who won the National First Division top goalscorer award last season with 16 goals.
Zulu has only played 5 games in the PSL and scored 2 goals. At 28 years old without any caps at junior national team level, Bafana Bafana will be his incubator to international football.
In an era where the PSL top goalscorer managed a meagre 10 goals, Zulu’s strike rate is impressive. Hopefully, he’ll carry his clinical conversion of goals at club level to Bafana Bafana’s strike force that has had a chronic phobia of scoring goals.
All of these players have a lot to prove to cement their places in Mashaba’s long-term plans for the national team. They have been rewarded for their consistency at club level.
While they are far from becoming a group of world beaters, the opportunity to become part of a generation that revives Bafana Bafana into a team of future champions will spur them to greater heights than their predecessors.
It will require the patience of the biblical Job to transform Bafana Bafana into a winning team. Coach Mashaba needs as much time as possible with these new and young players for Bafana Bafana to become serious contenders for trophies.
He will have to resist the temptations to recall experienced players to the team for short term wins.
He must ignore the screams of millions of trigger-happy couch coaches and their accomplices, in the form of some misinformed legends, to ditch his youngsters when they are not winning matches.
Transforming a group of novices into championship material requires no hysterical reactions when results are not forthcoming.
Coach Mashaba’s primary focus must be to select the available players who are willing to honour call ups to the national team at all times, not only when it is convenient to their club commitments.
For far too long, Bafana Bafana’s preparations for nationals have been marred by controversies regarding the questionable 11th hour withdrawal of some players ahead of crucial matches.
It is, therefore, encouraging that coach Mashaba has emphasised rebuilding the national team around players who are loyal to Bafana Bafana and will honour the prestige of the national team call-ups.
Loyalty to the national team and respect for the jersey are two values that coach Mashaba holds dearly. It was his uncompromising stance on upholding these twin values that compelled Safa to temporarily replace him in May 2003 following his decision to select only local-based players for a prestigious friendly match against England after questioning the commitment of overseas-based players to the national team.
He refused to succumb to public and political pressure from his bosses to change the squad, resulting in the appointment of Jomo Sono as acting coach only for that match.
He was ultimately fired on the verge of the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations after defying Safa’s instructions to select senior overseas-based players such as Hans Vonk, Quinton Fortune and Lucas Radebe for the tournament.
He will need the same brevity to replicate, and even exceed, his previous successes with Bafana Bafana.
A bit of unsolicited advice to Shakes Mashaba: Desist from starting an unwinnable war with the media when they are critical of your decisions, selections and tactics. Your two immediate predecessors made the same mistake, which ultimately precipitated their downfall.
You were appointed to win matches for Bafana Bafana not to win petty, distracting battles with journalists. You will only win them over by winning matches, not scoring backpage headlines. And when you do that, you will have the last laugh.
Solly Malatsi is a DA MP, and a soccer enthusiast