POLOKWANE – What if they’d won the two qualifiers against Cape Verde two months ago?
It’s a question that will haunt Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter for the remainder of his tenure with the national team as he threw in the towel in the hopes of reaching the World Cup in Russia next year with a 2-0 defeat to Senegal here on Friday night.
A win in Praia on September 1 and another one four days later against the same team in Durban would have softened the blow on this hurtful result at home as hosts to Group D leaders Senegal, who are now guaranteed a place at next year’s global showpiece.
Baxter already has critics, and they will swell up in number following an unwanted result at the Peter Mokaba Stadium.
The next best thing is to try to qualify for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, but many will question whether it should be Baxter that leads that charge.
The coach had managed to at least get the backing of some 41 500 fans at this venue prior to kickoff, with supporters flocking the ticketing centre to come show their love for Bafana, who had to beat Senegal first in this Limpopo province and then again in Dakar on Tuesday to occupy one of five spots for African teams at the World Cup.
But the game plan was quickly out of the window after just 12 minutes when Diafra Sakho sneaked in behind the Bafana back four to squeeze the ball past a fully stretched goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune.
Senegal, who were extremely conservative a year ago at this very stadium and lost 2-1 to Bafana under then-coach Shakes Mashaba, were much more aggressive this time around and were clinical in front of goal, as well as resolute in defence.
This was a replay of the previous encounter on South African soil between the two sides after Fifa alleged that Bafana’s win was null and void following an investigation into allegations of match-fixing.
Referee Joseph Lamptey had already been giving a lifetime ban from football and the focus – not without any controversy as Baxter’s employers tried to appeal the decision – shifted to November 10, 2017.
It will be remembered as the fateful night where Bafana, for the second time with Baxter in charge, failed to qualify for a World Cup event, while his counterpart Aliou Cisse has managed to lead his native country to their first ever tournament since 2002, a side he captained.
Baxter was at the helm in 2005 when the national team came up short in their attempts to reach the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
His second coming has been painful.
And when defender Thamsanqa Mkhize helped the ball into his own net just after 38 minutes of play, it couldn’t have gotten worse.
Bafana had somehow been able to find a spring in their step despite going a goal down.
They had been spurred on by the fact that there was still so much to play for, even though they had been caught napping when Senegal talisman Sadio Mané eliminated three defenders with one pass to set up Sakho for the opener.
For the rest of the first half, the visitors were like rabbits in headlights as they chased the Bafana shadows, but the South Africans failed to take advantage – Lebogang Manyama coming the closest with a shot that hit the inside of the crossbar, but didn’t find its way into the net, coming back into play instead.
Mkhize’s own goal preceded a second half to forget, as more questions were asked in another disappointing campaign that has led to having to wait for the 2022 World Cup qualifications.
That is a year that coincides with the SA Football Association’s vision to have ensured Bafana are among the best team in the continent.
Such a long way to go…