JOHANNESBURG - Despite being ignored as Bafana Bafana’s first-choice right-back until recently, Ramahlwe Mphahlele said this week his priority was to help the national team qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia instead of trying to cement his place.
Of course the Kaizer Chiefs defender would love for his name to be on the list of players heading to Russia should Bafana qualify. But when coach Stuart Baxter’s men face Cape Verde in Praia on Friday and then in Durban four days later in Group D of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Mphahlele will have his mind fully focused on the maximum points up for grabs.
“It’s a selfish mentality to be thinking about how I can make sure that I am there when we go to Russia,” Mphahlele said. “There are so many right-backs in the country and I am the one that is here right now.
"My aim is to help the country quality because if we do, people won’t be saying Stuart Baxter is going to the World Cup, but they will be saying South Africa is going to the World Cup. That is the kind of mentality we want. We are selected to do a job here, regardless of the future. It is important we put our bodies on the line for the country.”
Mphahlele has obviously grown and matured into his current role, having returned to the Bafana fold towards the end of Shakes Mashaba’s tenure as coach. The reigning Player of the Year at Amakhosi, Mphahlele, also a former Mamelodi Sundowns captain, admits it is awkward playing the same opposition twice just several days apart.
“Maybe they might decide they field a completely young team in the second match if they have lost the first one. It’s tricky playing the same opponent twice,” he said.
“The tactics might be slightly different, but we know what we are supposed to do. We have a plan established by the coach in-house, and obviously these are two very important games for our World Cup qualification.”
Bafana are second in Group D behind log leaders Burkina Faso, although the two sides are tied on four points, with the latter enjoying a slightly superior goal difference. Bafana drew 1-1 with Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou last October, but beat Senegal 2-1 in Polokwane a month later before Mashaba was sacked for misconduct and insubordination.
Baxter then replaced Mashaba as Bafana's technical head in May this year.
“We are looking to build on those results. We don’t want to rely on anyone to be doing us favours,” said Mphahlele. “Maybe the public thinks Cape Verde are an easier opposition because they have lost their first two matches in the group, but we shouldn’t think like that. It is important that we approach each game with the same mentality.
"The same way we approached our Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria (where South Africa beat the Super Eagles for the first time in a competitive match in June). Nobody gave us a chance there because of the history. It has been a while since we qualified for a World Cup (2002, having participated in the 2010 tournament as hosts). And as players we want this badly.”