Johannesburg – It is clear that Gordon Igesund will find what he deems Bafana Bafana’s best 23 players to represent the country in next month’s Africa Cup of Nations from the 36-man squad he announced this week.
For a change, there hasn’t been a lot of contention about the composition of Igesund’s provisional squad after he, for the first time since taking over the Bafana coaching reins, included men such as Andile Jali and Lehlohonolo Majoro.
Few would have rumbled over the exclusion of Dino Ndlovu and Katlego Mashego – two of Igesund’s many experiments in the past five months – as Igesund has now run out of time and must seek to establish a winning team.
The return of Katlego Mphela to the national team for the first time since June is a major boost, even though at first Igesund had seemed to have forgotten him as he harped on about Benni McCarthy, who is back, Igesund wasting no time recalling him the moment he saw him turn out for Orlando Pirates last week.
This column has previously expressed reservations about Igesund’s admiration of McCarthy, the striker who has been out of shape for the past 24 months and missed the 2010 World Cup as a result.
But I’m afraid we may have to put up with the unpleasant sight of the veteran striker in a national jersey next year – his inclusion in the final 23-man squad seems as inevitable as the outcome of the political leadership contest happening in Mangaung starting this weekend.
Even though McCarthy’s first attempt at staging an international comeback ended in embarrassment when he was substituted nine minutes after coming on against Brazil in September, confirming our suspicions that his initial inclusion had little to do with football and more with public relations, he’s a certainty to add to his 80 caps.
You may recall that McCarthy, following Igesund’s appointment in July, was quick to sing the coach’s praises, stating among others that “players will finally be selected on merit”. We should assume his inclusion in the Bafana training camp that begins on December 27, after having played just two games, has a lot to do with “merit”.
The truth, though, is that in any self-respecting footballing nation, a player like McCarthy would in no way be near a national camp, least of all one which precedes an international tournament.
But we have to accept the fact that Igesund adores him, and, barring injury (which can’t be ruled out for unfit players), will most likely include him in his squad.
In any case, it is Igesund’s head that’s on the block and, if he feels he requires McCarthy’s services to fulfil his tough mandate of leading Bafana to the Nations Cup semi-finals, then so be it.
Coaches live and die by their decisions, and Igesund should be accorded space to make his choices. But where these choices are later proven to defy logic, as was the case with McCarthy’s inclusion in the trip to Brazil, he won’t be spared.
My only gripe about Igesund’s announcement this week was that he intends naming his final squad on December 30. This seems too early for me, coming 20 days before Bafana open the Nations Cup against Cape Verde at Soccer City.
It’s likely that the misfortune of injury could strike (with McCarthy in camp this can’t be ruled out), and Igesund could be forced to call on players who’re already in holiday mode to replace one or two he may want to withdraw.
A slightly bloated squad – of about 27/28 players – would offer more options to the national coach, and definitely encourage competition in the side, with squad members uncertain as to who would be sent home.
As to why Igesund backtracked on his earlier promise that he would name his team on January 9, following the friendly against Norway in Cape Town, is unclear. Panic, perhaps? This, however, is not the time for flip-flopping. Igesund has done a lot of that in his first months, promising to pick players solely on form but then curiously selecting the likes of McCarthy.
The coach now needs to be more decisive and bold. The honeymoon is over.