JOHANNESBURG – What is Bafana Bafana’s biggest game yet in the Stuart Baxter era also coincides with an enormous responsibility for Thulani Hlatshwayo since he took over the captain’s armband, he says.
“It’s the six points that we need to go to Russia, nothing less,” the national team centreback explains.
Bafana host Senegal in the penultimate clash of their 2018 World Cup qualifier at the Peter Mokaba Stadium on Friday, before making the trip to Dakar for the return leg against the same team.
If Bafana win both matches, and Hlatshwayo is well aware of the significance of this, they will book their ticket to the tournament.
“No player wants to miss out on playing at the World Cup, even more so as captain of the team. These two games are of huge importance to me,” he said. “But I am not guaranteed to play.”
Indeed, the Bidvest Wits defender was unavailable for Bafana’s 3-1 win over Burkina Faso last month because of a knee injury.
Baxter put his trust in the SuperSport United rearguard pairing of Morgan Gould and Clayton Daniels, who were excellent until Alain Traore scored from a free kick with three minutes left on the clock to spoil their clean sheet hopes.
“The coach has a headache,” Hlatshwayo says.
“Remember that Erick Mathoho was also not there, and Morgan and Clayton showed their experience in that game.
“I know I am the captain, but that does not mean I am guaranteed to start the game. I am not Bafana Bafana. The aim is to see the team get to Russia. I am okay if that happens with me sitting on the bench.
“The coach doesn’t have to be under pressure.”
It’s likely that Baxter will still find a way for his captain in his line-up should he decide not to change the centreback partnership.
The coach has, after all, lamented the fact that the back four has been chopped and changed too much during the qualification phase.
Hlatshwayo is also an option at right back, where Baxter has the inexperienced Thamsanqa Mkhize without a direct alternative.
“I watched the Burkina Faso game, and I have to applaud the game plan and the efforts. Everyone did well,” says Hlatshwayo.
He has come up against Senegal before – and scored from a penalty in that controversial 2-1 victory in Polokwane a year ago.
But the game was annulled, with Fifa ordering a replay after it was alleged that the game was fixed.
“I am a little bit sad that my goal is officially not in the record books, but it is possible to do it again as I have scored goals before. Maybe not from a penalty kick, but I know I can do well in set-pieces,” says the skipper.
The back-to-back fixtures against Senegal wouldn’t have been must-win games had Bafana not suffered two unexpected consecutive defeats against Cape Verde in Praia on September 1, and then again in Durban four days later to leave their chances of qualifying for the World Cup hanging by the thinnest of threads at the time.
“We know the pressure that we are under. People in this country want to see Bafana qualify for major events, and not only hosting them.
“There are previous generations that have done well for Bafana, and now it’s our turn. It still pains me that we lost to Cape Verde twice. We would have been in a good position on the log with those six points,” says the defender.
“I wouldn’t say the game was too much for us to handle. We conceded two quick goals, and we couldn’t recover. We need to be as good as our last game, which was against Burkina Faso.”