JOHANNESBURG - It’s not awkward at all between Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter and Dino Ndlovu after the Scotsman said the Azerbaijan league, where the striker plays his football and scores goals with impeccable consistency, was not good enough.
Baxter’s not suddenly had a change of heart, but has finally rewarded Ndlovu with a call-up to the national team ahead of Saturday’s 2018 World Cup qualifier at home against Burkina Faso, because Ndlovu has recently been brushing shoulders with the big boys - English champions Chelsea, Spanish giants Atletico Madrid and a strong Roma side from the Italian Serie A - in the European Champions League this season.
The burly striker who has had stints with no less than three clubs in his country of birth is now Qarabag’s leading goal ace.
“I respect the statements the coach made. I think it was on the day he was hired as the national team coach," Ndlovu said.
"But at the end of the day we play football, regardless of whether it’s in Azerbaijan or Mozambique. We are chasing the round thing,”
He added: “I think playing in the Champions League has helped me a lot.
“Me and the coach had a decent conversation about how I would fit into the team. But this is not about me, it’s about the whole country. We are in a bad state on the (qualification) table and we need to overturn that this coming weekend.”
Ndlovu, 27, accepted that perhaps the Azerbaijan league, where Qarabag are the reigning champions, is a little inferior to the South African Premier League, a division in which he wasn’t as prolific as he is now while playing for Bloemfontein Celtic, SuperSport United and Mpumalanga Black Aces several seasons ago.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions in comparing the two leagues, but it’s true that the PSL is slightly higher than the one I am playing in because we only have eight teams in Azerbaijan and this side it’s 16. Nevertheless, football is football,” Ndlovu explained.
“I never give up if I don’t get called up. At the end of the day I need to perform at club level, they are the ones who put food on the table for my family. I won’t get angry and burn bridges for myself. I had the hope that my time will come and I think it’s now.”
The striker hasn’t been anywhere near the Bafana set-up since Gordon Igesund - with a stint between 2012 and 2014 - gave him a run.
He returns at a time when Baxter’s men have their backs against the wall and are likely to miss out on a place in next year’s World Cup, which will be confirmed if they lose to Burkina Faso.
“But it’s an ideal time for me,” Ndlovu said.
“I am a believer and God says he gives his toughest tests to his strong soldiers. If we don’t believe we can make it to Russia, then it’s useless to be playing this coming game this weekend."
Ndlovu described himself as being ready for the pressure Bafana are under.
"I am a footballer and should always be under pressure, otherwise this is a comfort zone. To be called up in this type of situation is an ideal time for me to prove what I can do and we can all make the country proud again.”
With about 300 tickets sold earlier this week for the qualifier at the FNB Stadium, it is clear fans have been despondent and are seemingly boycotting Bafana matches.
Ndlovu would have relished playing in front of a large crowd, but said the national team would still have to get on with the job regardless of whether more people show up.
“Ah, even if it’s not full, it doesn’t matter. I know that South African people love Bafana even if they sulk and sit at home. They will still switch on the TV and watch the game. Hopefully we get a positive result.”