Results, or lack thereof, will not be Stuart Baxter’s downfall as Bafana Bafana coach.
His failure to read and understand the country’s political dynamics will lead to his demise if he doesn’t quickly change his ways.
The irony, though, is that if he were to be in politics, he would thrive as he has mastered the art of “cadre redeployment”.
His move from Kaizer Chiefs to SuperSport United and from Matsatsantsa a Pitori to Bafana for a second stint showed that the British coach has his people.
That’s not a bad thing when looked at in isolation. A coach deserves to be fully in charge and work with people he trusts, people who know what he wants.
But things are different in the national team. You also have to factor in the political landscape in almost everything you do as you aren’t only a coach, but also a diplomat.
The manner in which Baxter got the job, as a “safe option” after the South African Football Association (Safa) struggled to get their first, second and third choices, means that he starts on a position of disadvantage.
Baxter’s appointment divided the country because of his first tenure, and the fact that Safa dragged the process so long looking for their man that the public wanted something special to make up for the wait.
Baxter wasn’t that something special, which meant his first port of call was uniting people behind him.
The victory over Nigeria in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier was a good start. But he moved a couple of steps back with his recommendation that Quinton Fortune be hired as his assistant.
Don’t get me wrong, Fortune is qualified for this position, but he isn’t the right appointment if you understand the country’s political landscape.
Fortune showed Safa and the country his middle finger so often in his days as a Manchester United player that we can identify it with our eyes closed.
That individual isn’t exactly someone you then bring to the national team to inspire players to respect the jersey he showed little regard to.
The manner in which Baxter went about searching for a fitness coach, an appointment that can only be made by the team doctor and not the coach, is another not-so-politically-correct move on his part.
How then does he work with someone he showed before he had even worked with him that he wants to replace, or work with the doctor whose authority he undermined?
Baxter struggled to get the buy-in of his ideals and vision in his first tenure because he came with the Mr-Know-It-All attitude, a stance that will alienate people rather than win you fans.
A Briton coming to Africa to tell people what they have been doing is wrong, and this is how to do things right, doesn’t exactly come across well, regardless of the intentions. That’s where tact is needed.
People are more receptive towards him this time around because of his work at Chiefs and SuperSport.
But his first act after getting the job was not to mend the fences that needed to be fixed. Instead, he strengthened relationships that were strong to further prove that he has his people.
With all of this, it doesn’t help his course that he started his tenure on a poor note by losing twice to minnows Cape Verde, washing away the historic win over Nigeria in Nigeria.
The defeats to the Blue Sharks might have ended our dream to go to the World Cup in Russia next year, especially now that the match against Senegal has to be replayed.
If we couldn’t get a point against the lowly Cape Verde – who have never qualified for the World Cup – it’s hard to imagine that we can get six points from Senegal, who are co-holders of the record for the best performance by an African nation in the global showpiece, having reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 edition.
So far, Baxter has done a poor job at negotiating the minefields in front of him. Managing a national team is an intricate balancing act of not only producing the results, but also negotiating your way past the political dynamics.
Baxter has excelled in neither so far, which doesn’t read well for a man who will be constantly reminded that he wasn’t the first choice.
For Shakes Mashaba, his tenure was about controlling his temper, which was fuelled by how Safa treated him in his first stint.
He couldn’t, and that led to his sacking.
For Baxter, his tenure is about managing the political dynamics that come with this job.
If he fails, that’s how he will leave it.