Stuart Baxter takes charge during a recent training session. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu /BackpagePix
Talent and ability have never been in question in South African football. The problem has always been in how it’s harnessed and channelled, be that at grassroots level or the senior national football squad, Bafana Bafana.

On Saturday, in the cauldron of Uyo in Nigeria, this new Bafana incarnation in Stuart Baxter’s second spell in charge sensationally took out the much-vaunted Super Eagles 2-0. 

It has been a long, long time since there was so much enjoyment to be savoured from a Bafana performance. And, again, the point being that the talent, the individual players, the fabric of the team, has to be mobilised and deployed properly in so many ways for it to be successful. 

In essence, Baxter, in such a short time, has done wonders.

The coach’s stellar work at Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United prepared us for what to expect. There would be shape and structure, there would be defensive organisation and tactical discipline, and, always, there would be a workable plan, an insightful strategy to follow. We knew all of this, but, boy, we didn’t expect it to be done so effectively, so clinically, so beautifully on the watching eye. 

The victory demonstrated the potential of the SA national football side; it proved what can be achieved with a deep-thinking, attention-to-detail coach; and it highlighted how positively players respond when they have trust and faith in the instructions they are given.

Importantly, this was a Bafana team and not, as has so often been the case in the past, a bunch of disparate individuals. Everyone was aware of his job, and everyone bought into the game plan. The big stumbling block that hinders the progress of SA football is this constant, intransigent obsession with unnecessary fancy tricks and gratuitous over-elaboration on the ball. 

Modern football is about structure, organisation, discipline, and it’s from this solid platform that a team earns the right to attack. Like Saturday: It was after Bafana had frustrated the Nigerians with tight, hard-to-penetrate defensive lines that they could go on and play a more expansive, offensive game in the second half.

To a man, every single player’s contribution to the cause on Saturday was invaluable. But I couldn’t be happier for new captain Thulani Hlatshwayo. 

Having tracked his career from his days as a raw youngster in the Ajax Cape Town youth academy, his success as a footballer and his elevation as the man leading the country’s football team are perfect examples of good things happening to good people. 

File picture: Ronen Zvulun

A real gentle giant, he’s a pleasure to interview and one of the most amiable, approachable players in the PSL. All of this despite his lofty status in the sport – and, in a PSL awash with narcissists, the committed, passionate intensity of Hlatshwayo is the appropriate fit to skipper Baxter’s new regime.

Dean Furman remains the best midfield sweeper in the country – full stop. The amount of work he gets through in the 90 minutes is just mind-blowing. He hovers in front of the back-four, providing a Captain America-like shielding presence to ward off the opposition’s attacking forays. On Saturday, he was again at his very best with intelligent interceptions, timely tackles, precise distribution, and even one game-saving contribution when clearing the ball off the goal line.

The mature performances of Keagan Dolly, Tokelo Rantie and Bongani Zungu reveals how playing in Europe can add the gloss to an already talented footballer. 

The trio, playing in France, Turkey and Portugal respectively, was methodical in their execution. It was particularly their decision making that caught the eye – and, no doubt, Dolly’s dash and dare, Rantie’s pace and industry and Zungu’s composed all-round game intelligence will continue to play an increasingly influential role in this Bafana squad.

If there’s a man who has an eye for talent, if there’s a man who you have to listen to when he mentions the name of a player, it’s former Bafana coach Clive Barker. I remember Barker, when he was in charge of Mpumalanga Black Aces a few seasons ago, singing the praises of his midfielder Themba Zwane. 

Barker said, at the time, that if he were the Bafana coach he would build the team around Zwane.

Zwane went on to join Mamelodi Sundowns and, on Saturday, he gave the entire country notice of what Barker was raving about a few years ago. The Bafana winger was sensational against Nigeria. He was always a lively presence as a late arrival in the box, hitting the woodwork twice, but it was in his general play that he was more effective. 

A keen eye for an opening, a smooth passer and work rate par excellence, perhaps, in the words of Barker, this is the player around which Bafana should operate.


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Cape Times

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