Firing Stuart Baxter won't be the solution to Bafana Bafana's woes, says the writer. Photo: Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

With all the predictability of a political scandal, the chorus whipped up fast and loud after Bafana Bafana reached for the World Cup exit door in Durban this week.

Time for Stuart Baxter to go, was the inevitable response; a lazy, convenient reaction that ignores more fundamental issues that go to the heart of the local game.

The most level-headed response came from prominent agent Mike Makaab, who tweeted: “I’m not taking the blame away from the coach, but Jose Mourinho would struggle in this situation. A complete rethink is needed at Safa.”

By all accounts, Baxter had a tough time drawing his players together for the double leg against Cape Verde.

When he did, there were accusations that he favoured his former club. He duly prepared his team and imposed his game plan.

But a game plan is useless without hunger and passion, and the inner drive that powers champion teams. There was little urgency, the cute passing masking a glaring lack of ambition.

It’s all very well showing snappy skills, but what’s the point when they are seldom seen in proximity to the goals?

The lack of fire in front of goal has dogged local soccer for many years. Famously, it’s the imports who tend to do most damage, a habit our players have been reluctant (or unable) to adopt.

Zambian Collins Mbesuma’s record 25 PSL goals were scored a dozen years ago, and will probably remain unchallenged for 12 more years.

The desperados out there will say that Bafana still have a mathematical chance – they must somehow beat Burkina Faso and repeat their earlier win over Senegal after the match was sullied by a dirty referee and ordered to be replayed.

But the game is up when you go this route. They’re as good as dead and buried.

There’s an astounding immaturity that permeates the local game, probably because there are so few local skhokhos (generals) who boss the park.

In past years, we’ve been fortunate to have hard heads like Neil Tovey, Lucas Radebe, Quinton Fortune and Matthew Booth, who were all physical and imposed themselves.

Now, perhaps only Itumeleng Khune commands a similar level of respect.

The SA team have also got to a dangerous point where people have stopped caring. Failure has become so routine – the team last qualified for the World Cup in 2002 – that the frequent horrors are met with a shrug. And that’s half the trouble.

When similar episodes occur in cricket and rugby, there is an outcry.

The letters pages erupt; the phone lines fire up on talk radio and the anger simmers. Yet, Bafana are met only with indifference.

Itumeleng Khune is the only Bafana Bafana player who commands the same respect as stars of the past. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

There’s something desperately tired and complacent about Bafana, whose schizophrenic nature was evident the moment Baxter started.

In his first game, an African Nations Cup qualifier, they belted heavyweights Nigeria.

Mere days later, Zambia put the lid on those celebrations by beating SA at home.

And so it goes.

What’s to be done?

Clearly, players must be better equipped to take the step up. Managing egos is vital, a by-product of teaching them life skills. Prima donnas abound. They must be kept in check.

Our best players must play in foreign leagues, where standards are superior. Indeed, almost all the Cape Verde squad play in European leagues, chiefly in France. It’s what allows them to punch above their weight.

We must also move beyond our obsession with the domestic scene, which functions in a bubble.

The measure of excellence is found overseas. Player exchange programmes and twinning with overseas clubs is a proven method.

More must be done to dip into international best practice, be it in training, nutrition, recovery or science.

Baxter also has a long-term plan, which he must be allowed to impose without interference. Firing him will achieve nothing.

Finally, the talent pipeline must be refined. Skills are there in abundance, but tactical nous, strength and fighting spirit must be nurtured.

Skill alone can’t hack it. These qualities must be non-negotiable.

This will allow the coach to select players who are almost the finished product; players who need refinement and little more.

Watching Russia 2018 from afar will be a grind, the heavy price to pay for inertia.


Sunday Tribune