CAPE TOWN - Race, and the concept of the other, is still inextricably intertwined with the prism through which South Africans view their world. In rugby and cricket, the performances of black players are constantly under the microscope; errors are amplified and their selection in the team regularly questioned. Simplistically, from the terraces, white players belong there, blacks don’t; white players are allowed room for error and time to grow and develop, black players aren’t.
The issue, of course, is a lot more complex and tied up with the psychology of SA's past. Importantly, though, as much as this occurs in rugby and cricket, the reverse is just as true from the terraces in football. Here, the performances of white players are always under the microscope, errors are amplified, and their position in the team always questioned. In short, in football, black players are allowed room for error and space to grow, whites aren’t. Both scenarios are untenable, but it’s just the nature of this frustrating country.
It is because of this that combative Bafana Bafana midfielder Dean Furman has had to endure so much gratuitous criticism. It’s not that he’s a bad player, it’s not that he’s erratic - on the contrary, he’s probably one of SA's most consistent performers - but, because he is white, every move he makes is in the spotlight, every mistake is pounced upon; in essence, Furman has to be near-perfect to please the fickle masses who religiously follow the sport. He’s been the backbone around which SuperSport United charged to the final of the Caf Confederation Cup - and yet, still, he has to constantly prove himself.
With all of this, I have nothing but respect for the manner in which Furman handles the pressure around which he has to base his game week after week. On Tuesday night, the 29-year-old from Camps Bay again proved how invaluable he is in the centre of the Bafana midfield.
He’s not flash, but he’s effective. He is the most unselfish of footballers, intelligent, committed to the team, composed and, when a teammate is looking to pass, rest assured, Furman will be close by to support. Against Senegal on Tuesday, he snapped at ankles, made countless tackles, won possession, covered, passed, linked and was the gear that shifted everything in the Bafana performance.
The nimble, irrepressible Percy Tau wasn’t too far behind Furman, and this nippy, intuitive footballer certainly has a bright future. Quick of feet, and fleet of mind, the Mamelodi Sundowns forward regularly had the Senegal defence floundering - and the goal he netted was a thing of beauty too.
But, despite a sound, solid performance, as usual, Bafana somehow or other contrived to lose. Truth be told, like the previous game against Senegal in Polokwane last week, it was again poor decision-making and errors from individuals, together with shoddy finishing, that prevented the SA national team from emerging victorious. The approach was evident: it was to keep things tight early on in each half, to press the opposition and not allow them time and space, and then to be more offensive as each half wore on. Bafana were clearly dominant in the final 15-20 minutes of each period - they just failed to make the most of it.
So, again, the spotlight is on Stuart Baxter. Everybody’s pointing fingers at the coach. Nothing wrong with that - football is, after all, a game of opinion. Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, SA's ostensible superhero, was at fault for Senegal’s first goal for rushing out of his penalty area like a naive schoolboy, but that’s okay. Khune stood flat-footed for the second goal when a header from far out trickled in, but that’s also okay. Themba Zwane’s missed penalty was so embarrassing and so far off the target it could probably act as a metaphor for the entire landscape of SA football, but that’s okay. Sibusiso Vilakazi had an inviting opportunity in the first half, with the whole goal to aim at, yet he chose to shoot straight at the Senegal goalkeeper, but, hey, that’s okay. All of it is still Baxter’s fault; he’s got to go.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no truck with Baxter. I’m not his praise singer, in any way. In fact, if I reflect on the two recent defeats to Cape Verde, I’d say “sack his ass”. I’m sure even Baxter would readily admit that, with regards to tactics and selection, he sometimes got things wrong during his few months in charge. It’s the nature of the sport - there is no magic wand. But I’ve long been of the opinion that the players get off far too easily. They are apparently untouchable (except Furman, of course) and, like so much of what is wrong with SA, the players are simply not responsible for their actions and errors. Someone else has to bear the consequences for them failing to do their jobs.
And that someone else is? Well, the coach, of course. So, hey, because Bafana never qualified for the 2018 World Cup, just fire Baxter: it’s the solution to all of the problems ailing football in SA.