JOHANNESBURG – With Bafana Bafana now having the slimmest of chances to go to the World Cup in Russia next year, coach Stuart Baxter has been putting out fires following the back-to-back defeats to Cape Verde earlier this month.
In a sit-down interview with Mazola Molefe, he reflects on those unexpected results and answers burning questions ahead of facing Burkina Faso in yet another qualifier in Group D on Saturday.
MM: It’s probably been a tough couple of weeks since the Cape Verde debacle?
SB: Yes it has. I don’t put disappointments like that to bed in five minutes. You think about what you have done, what the players have done and you wonder what else you could have done better logistically, and then you make your recommendations.
And then you start to think about how you can put that right with the group of players you have for the next game. I have been caught up in trying to get some perspective, or getting stuck into some work to put things right.
MM: You haven’t seen the players yet since those two back-to-back defeats, but has there been some sort of debrief?
SB: We will do that the very first time we meet because of how the last camp ended (Bafana players reportedly went out partying after the home loss in Durban).
I have spoken to a few of the players individually, but that was more because of how the camp ended. I needed to give them my opinion.
When we meet I need to set the scene in terms of what I expect from international players. Then the second part will be about the tactics going into our game. We need a much stronger mentality.
MM: Bafana are not only bottom of the group, but now have to replay Senegal and the only way to qualify is to, at the very least, win all the remaining games. Tough ask?
SB: It’s going to be a tough one for the players. That is something that needs answering with a performance.
Everyone can debate the decision to replay the match (which SA had won 2-1 in November last year), but that is now irrelevant. It is what it is and you have to come up with a response.
The first thing is going to be about our attitude. If we feel like we are victims, it’s not going to be the tactical response that we want.
It’s been tough for the association because we don’t want to be seen to be endorsing corruption, but at the same time you want to flag up some sort of fair play and how Fifa have historically dealt with these sort of things.
As soon as it came out that we would play Senegal again, I had to stop the wishful thinking and hoping. That’s the reality.
MM: Are you under pressure to double your efforts given these slim World Cup chances?
SB: I think every game has its own dynamics. The dynamics of the group changed radically, overnight when they broke the rules.
I still feel if we had taken some points off the Cape Verde game, we would be looking at this differently. We would have been looking forward to the remaining games instead of looking at them as a knife on the throat.
Everyone of these games now is a World Cup final, a do or die. If we would have done our job 10 or 15 percent better, we wouldn’t be in this situation.
MM: You’ve been criticised for selecting defender Mulomowandau Mathoho again despite his red card away in Praia. Is he not off form?
SB: I understand people saying that or having that opinion. We have invested a lot of international time in “Tower”, and when he cannot play, do you look around for a player with none of that experience and throw him in?
If you do that, I think you are gambling big time. It may please a few of the punters that you are shaking it up. But the reality is you could be ending someone’s career.
I still think he is better equipped to give a performance on the day than one who is being thrown in at the deep end.
If I try to rationalise it I would say maybe ‘Tower’ can give us a six out of 10 performance and one that is thrown in will give you a two.
I don’t want to gamble in this game.
MM: Was it a difficult squad to pick?
SB: Yes it was. I wanted to make sure we have some options and that we didn’t just go down the same road again. That would be wrong.
We had two poor results and at times individuals giving poor performances. I wanted everybody to have a little bit of a spark.
I don’t think you can just tweak it a little bit. You have to make some tough decisions. You have to bring some in and leave some out, and maybe change the way you play to have a bit of belief.
But of course, selecting a squad is an impossible mission because some people like Fred and some like Tom. That’s why football is such a passionate game. You’ve got to have your opinion, stick by it and defend it.
MM: Are we likely to see any debutants against Burkina Faso because Ramahlwe Mphahlele is out injured and you called up Thamsanqa Mkhize and Reeve Frosler at right back?
SB: I would use a similar rationale to what I have just said about “Tower”. Will this be the right time to throw in debutants?
If we were thinking these World Cup qualifiers have passed us by and we want to use that time building players for the future, then maybe I would be thinking about debutants. But I don’t think they have passed us by yet.
I want to make sure that we give all the signals that we are a 100 percent committed to try and take whatever chance we have of qualifying.
We have to replace Rama and possibly Tyson (captain Thulani Hlatshwayo) because he has a knee injury and it is not one that is responding quickly. Those are key players in our back four.
Maybe we throw in a young one and say if he is good enough, he is old enough.
But when you have the big picture, you don’t throw in two new players.
MM: Bafana struggled to win home games long before your time. What is wrong?
SB: As we move along, we are probably going to get a sports psychologist in to help prepare our players. But not just for one game.
If you bring someone in, they can’t do enough work in the short time available. It probably just disturbs the players. What we will do is try to get advice to help the staff work with the players, to help the individual players to believe that they need some more help. And this is not a one-size-fits-all.
“We do think that, for whatever reasons, there is a mental problem and it maybe be a South Africa problem.
MM: Is your technical team finalised?
SB: I don’t think it’s great to be changing it all the time. We have two good sports scientists in Joshua Smith and KB (Kabelo Rangoaga), and they may rotate a little bit because in future, we want to have a sports science department and they would be attached to that.
But that’s an issue on its own. With the goalkeeper coach, Alex (Heredia) working more for Fifa and Caf.
We have to prepare someone to take over with him on the road, and Andre (Arendse) could be that person.
Quinton Fortune has been watching a couple of games for us abroad and maybe in future he can work with one of the junior teams as an assistant so he can do a bit more coaching.
Thabo (Senong) has given me what I didn’t have, which is information on the younger players.
Safa want me to make recommendations at the end of the year to have a permanent staff.