CAPE TOWN - Stuart Baxter has barely had time to lace up his coaching boots and already he’s feeling the heat from a South African public frustrated with Bafana Bafana’s inconsistency and inability to qualify for major football tournaments.
While the discontent is understandable - the last time the country qualified for the World Cup was in 2002 - it’s important to be just as aware that fingers shouldn’t only be pointed at the incumbent Bafana coach. Football’s rot goes far deeper.
So, as Bafana head into a dead rubber 2018 World Cup qualifier against Senegal in Dakar on Tuesday night, it is an opportunity for Baxter to reflect, plan for the future and have a look at some of the other players in the squad.
Safa have made it clear that it will await Baxter’s report on the two matches against Senegal, as well as the coach’s blueprint on the way forward, before making a decision on his future. But, with Baxter having only been appointed in May this year, it would be suicidal to put the boot in now. The knee-jerk changing of coaches is one of the big issues that has affected Bafana’s continuity since the demise started post-1996, and it remains at the root of the team’s lack of growth.
Football in SA needs to understand that patience is the virtue that drives progress. In the past, the hiring and firing of coaches palpably failed to improve the team in the long term - and, no doubt, it will be the same this time too. The scenario now is all-too-familiar: sack the coach and start from scratch again; and then, a few months later, expect the same situation to unfold: sack the coach and start all over again. It’s a tune SA has grown very tired of, yet it keeps singing it.
“Fire the coach” is, of course, a malaise that affects the entire landscape of football in SA. While, ultimately, the coach has to bear the responsibility for the result, too often the players get off scot-free.
Against Senegal in Polokwane last week, Bafana played some really smart football at times. The intricate passing patterns, and the manner in which they delightfully carved open the Senegal defence, was a joy to watch. So many inviting scoring opportunities were missed - and let’s add that coaches are not employed to score goals; once the players are on the pitch, the team takes over. And let’s also include, as everybody in SA football will admit, scoring goals is a national problem - in fact, it’s a national crisis.
From junior to senior football, the finishing is diabolical. That is not Baxter’s fault, it’s a structural issue. A national coach should not be teaching players how to finish, or how to control a ball. While, under Baxter, Bafana have had its difficulties - especially the two losses to Cape Verde - there is no doubt they have also produced some really promising performances, like the wins over Nigeria and Burkina Faso, while, as mentioned, there were many good moments in last week’s defeat to Senegal.
So, tonight, the question, of course, is how does Baxter approach things? Because of the pressure, will he opt to chase the result and play what he believes is his strongest team? Or will he decide to give some others in the squad a run? If he’s thinking about the future, then surely the latter is the best option. It’s time to see what other players can do.
For example: give goalkeeper Ronwen Williams an opportunity to regain some confidence in a Bafana jersey; let’s see what the burgeoning Motjeka Madisha can offer in central defence; Keagan Dolly, when last has he played? The exciting Phakamani Mahlambi; Dino Ndlovu has been in fantastic form for Azerbaijan side Qarabag, in the Champions League, why haven’t we seen more of him?
It’s time to be bold - if the team loses, so what? This game shouldn’t be about the result, it should be about opportunity, about what Bafana have in reserve, and about the players showing some character and pride in the national jersey, irrespective of who is selected. Most of all, this game shouldn’t be about Baxter’s job being on the line. Not yet, anyway.