JOHANNESBURG - With all the chaos that’s gone on in the Bafana Bafana camp this week, particularly in midfield where Siphiwe Tshabalala can be important, it’s not overreaching to suggest his part might be weightier than was at first imagined.
The 33-year-old, who last played for the national team four years ago in a friendly against then world champions Spain, is now one of the few midfielders left standing as shock withdrawals, suspensions and personal matters have crippled that department.
This all unfolding ahead of Friday’s must-win 2018 World Cup qualifier against Senegal at the Peter Mokaba Stadium and then in Dakar next Tuesday. Win those two games, and Bafana are on their way to Russia.
On Tuesday Bafana coach Stuart Baxter told reporters that Thulani Serero had removed himself from the squad, while Hlompho Kekana has had to leave the national team camp because of a sudden death in the family.
Andile Jali and Bongani Zungu will still miss Friday’s match due to suspension - that hasn’t changed. What role, then, can Tshabalala, whose nickname is "Shabba" play?
“I haven’t yet spoken to the coach about my role,” he said. “But I know the importance of the game. It’s not just important to Bafana, but the rest of the country. We need to make sure we do well at home first and then a few days later we do well in Dakar and qualify for the World Cup. For me, it is business as usual. I will do my best both on and off the field to help the team. I will also advise and lead through performance. I will help the best way I can.”
Most of the unavailable players - with Baxter saying he was thinking of calling up Tiyani Mabunda as a replacement for a grieving Kekana - aren’t Tshabalala’s direct competitors as he plays in a more advanced role in midfield. Only Serero, who looks to have ended his international career by telling Baxter to only select him if he plans to start him, fits the criteria.
But the coach could be forced to think out of the box with the way he sets up his team against Senegal later this week.
He described Tshabalala as “the most influential player” in the PSL at the moment as well as a “match winner” alongside Serero.
Tshabalala who has 90 caps for Bafana is not new to the drama that has played out in camp in Polokwane.
“There are always challenges,” Tshabalala said. “We are professionals and we need to deal with them.
"Some players are not 100 percent and others are not here yet. But it is something we have to understand and be professional about. There’s still a job that needs to be done on Friday.”
Asked whether he thought it was due to a lack of progress that he is back in the national team four years on or proof that he is still one of the best at what he does despite his age, Tshabalala obviously chose the latter.
“It’s an honour for me to represent my country even though I was absent for nearly four years. I have never shut this door. I never stopped working hard or closed that chapter. Now that I am here I must enjoy football,” Tshabalala said.