JOHANNESBURG - There was no avoiding the elephant in the room at the FNB Stadium auditorium on Wednesday as Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter faced the press for the first time since the aftermath of Bafana’s shock back-to-back defeats against lowly Cape Verde, world governing body Fifa’s decision to order a replay of last year’s 2-1 win over Senegal and reports that there is a booze culture in his squad.
Baxter said he’d been advised by Roy Hodgson, the former England manager, to stay calm.
Bafana, who face Burkina Faso in another World Cup qualifier on October 7, have the slimmest of chances to qualify for the tournament in Russia next year following the 2-0 loss to Cape Verde in Praia earlier this month and then 2-1 a few days later in Durban.
As if the backlash of those horrific results were not enough, Fifa announced that Baxter and his men would have to replay Group D opponents Senegal again in November following concrete evidence that the match had been manipulated by referee Joseph Lamptey, who had been handed a lifetime ban.
That left Bafana bottom of the group, with one point from three games.
And to dig the knife in a little deeper, a Sunday tabloid this week alleged that some Bafana players had gone on a drinking binge at the team hotel in Durban hours after their poor performance against the Blue Sharks.
The coach had also conceded that day that South Africa might not make it to the World Cup.
“Roy sent me a text and said: 'You and I have got a difficult challenge in front of us and when it’s like this coaches have to live in a bubble. You have to take out all the things that are not important and you have to concentrate on the things that will keep you alive',” said Baxter as he paraphrased Hodgson’s message.
“Immediately after the game, I was so devastated that I couldn’t see the sun coming up the following day. So, you ask me any question and you are going to get a slightly negative, downtrodden response. Could I be confident at that time? Probably not.
"Looking at the games again and how we can move forward and the squad I have selected, thinking about our opponents and knowing we are playing here, yeah, we will have a go at that. For me that is pretty normal to have had that response.”
Baxter made several changes to his squad, some forced by injury and suspension, while others were due to players being inactive, like strikers Tokelo Rantie and Kermit Erasmus. But why did the coach not make a statement by omitting those who had been accused of treating themselves to a night about town and finishing it off at the team hotel? The tabloid had singled out midfielder Bongani Zungu as the “ring leader”.
“I will not hang my players out to dry,” Baxter explained.
Baxter then moved on to explain his selection criteria, as well as revealing that Fifa are reviewing defender Mulomowandau Mathoho’s red card.
“Rantie got a red card for his club and has been suspended and will miss a couple of matches,” said Baxter. “He will be inactive and he has also been playing wide on the right instead of centre forward. Even in camp I saw he was a little bit on the edge and needs a bit more game time. The same with Erasmus, who doesn’t have a real address (a club) at the moment. He is an asset, but is a little rusty.”
On Mathoho he said: “We have included him in the team because the suspension is one game as per the rules, but Fifa are reviewing it on the 28th (of this month) because if it is violent conduct, he could still be suspended.”
Bafana squad: Goalkeepers: Itumeleng Khune, Wayne Sandilands, Ronwen Williams. Defenders: Morgan Gould, Erick Mathoho, Reeve Frosler, Thami Mkhize, Sifiso Hlanti, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Tebogo Langerman, Clayton Daniels. Midfielders: Andile Jali, Hlompho Kekana, Bongani Zungu, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Themba Zwane, Keagan Dolly, Thulani Serero. Strikers: Phakamani Mahlambi, Lebo Mothiba, Lebogang Manyama, Bradley Grobler, Dino Ndlovu, Percy Tau.