JOHANNESBURG – Is Thulani Serero misunderstood or a misfit in the national team?
The 27-year-old was two weeks ago rewarded for quickly adapting to life at a new club, winning Player of the Month for August and September in the Dutch Eredivisie, where he plays for Vitesse Arnhem.
He joined them at the start of the season following a seven-year stint with Ajax Amsterdam.
In the months that he supposedly excelled, Serero was called up for Bafana Bafana’s back-to-back crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers against Cape Verde away in Praia and the home leg in Durban a few days later.
But he never played, spending most of his time in the physio room rather than on the pitch.
“Yes, I’ve liked what he has been doing lately, but I have to say when he has been in camp with us he has not been at his best,” said Bafana coach Stuart Baxter after including Serero in his 26-man squad to face Senegal twice in the last hurdle of World Cup qualification next month.
“I think it is partly because of his niggling injuries, and partly because I am not sure he’d worked out how we wanted him to play,” Baxter added.
Questions have been raised about the player’s commitment to the national team, and Baxter is not the first Bafana coach to have difficulty in finding room or space for arguably one of South Africa’s best match-winners.
His predecessors Gordon Igesund and Shakes Mashaba also battled.
Four years ago, then Bafana coach Igesund sent Serero home from an international camp ahead of a dead-rubber World Cup qualifier at home against Botswana claiming that the player had asked not to play as he feared getting injured in the lead up to a massive Uefa Champions League clash against Barcelona.
Serero, playing for Ajax at the time and in fine form, denied this, but was back playing for the national team after Igesund’s contract was not renewed.
Mashaba also had his run-ins with the player, surprisingly leaving him out of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations squad in Equatorial Guinea.
Quoted on his club website during a mid-season camp on the eve of the tournament, Serero said his omission didn’t come as a surprise because of his complex relationship with Mashaba.
There is currently no impasse between the player and Baxter, but Serero has not shown a great deal of determination when called up since his move to Vitesse.
The coach had left him out of the two matches against Cape Verde because he was struggling with a hamstring injury and his club had been reluctant to release him, although they were obliged under Fifa rules to do so for the Bafana team doctor to asses the extent of his injury.
When Bafana hosted Burkina Faso earlier this month, Baxter suggested Serero lacked the physicality required to match The Stallions in a must-win World Cup qualifier. He was an unused substitute.
“I think he is now in better shape physically,” the coach said.
“And hopefully he knows better how we want him to play, in different positions. If he comes to camp and shows me that, then he will be a strong candidate.
“It is nice to have that sort of player, and that is what I am trying to do. If we have Plan A, then we also need a couple of ‘what if?’ scenarios.
“A player like Serero is a pretty powerful ‘what if?’ option. I would think every player that is in Europe wants to come (to camp) to start with.
“But if I think there is a player better than them on that day and more suitable for the job, then I will play them. We don’t bring back European players to take photos and enquire about their health. It’s to do a job.”