CAPE TOWN - The African Nations Championship (Chan) is usually not very high on the Bafana Bafana agenda. With only locally-based players allowed to compete, it is designed as a developmental exercise to grow the experience of countries’ next level of talent.
But Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter, after the victory over Botswana in the previous round, said he was happy with South Africa’s emerging players. He spoke positively of the commitment and energy he got from the local squad he had selected.
Earlier this week, Baxter named his squad for the third and final qualifying round of the 2018 Chan event, against Zambia, and there was a pleasant surprise for Ajax Cape Town winger Masilakhe “Scara” Phohlongo.
By its very nature, the Chan competition provides opportunities for burgeoning talents like Phohlongo - and the 20-year-old lad from Langa is determined to make the most of his national call-up. A regular member of the South Africa Under-20 squad, this is his first exposure to the senior national team and he sees it as a chance to demonstrate his undoubted ability to both club and country.
The first leg of the Zambia qualifier will be played on August 12, the home venue is still to be announced, and the return leg is scheduled for Zambia on the weekend of August 18-20. The winner of the two-leg tie qualifies for the 16-team Chan tournament, which will take place in Kenya early next year (January 11 to February 2).
Phohlongo, who has been at Ajax since the age of 10, graduated all the way to the PSL squad last season, and couldn’t be happier.
Always highly touted at the Cape club, with a gifted left foot, he came off the bench a few times in the PSL last season. Now, with an opportunity at a higher level, he’s looking to continue to develop and mature as a player.
“I’m really excited with the Bafana call-up,” said Phohlongo. “It’s a big thing for me, and I just want to go there and work hard. I think for me, as a youngster, it’s a fantastic opportunity to represent my country, my club and my family.”
The young Ajax winger was also a member of the SA U20 squad that played in the junior World Cup in South Korea in May this year. Having also previously been a national U17 star, Phohlongo is continuing that upward progress by now being selected for the Bafana squad.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” he said. “I think every player when he is a junior wants to graduate from the youth teams to Bafana. I can’t tell you how happy I am.
“I’m also excited to be working with Bafana coach Stuart Baxter. It will be the first time and I’m really looking forward to it. As for the Bafana squad, I’ve already played with some of the players in the U20 team, and there are also experienced players in the squad from whom I am sure I can learn a lot.”
One of those experienced players Phohlongo will be looking to lean on is fellow-Capetonian Mario Booysen, who will captain the Bafana Chan squad.
Phohlongo is also aware that, even though he has been picked for Bafana, he always has to keep one eye on his spot in the Ajax squad. There are always good young players coming through and everybody is eager to impress. Phohlongo was promoted from the youth academy last season and, for this upcoming campaign, another top left-footer has graduated to the senior team in Leo Thetani.
There has long been a buzz in the Ajax corridors around Thetani’s ability, with the teenager having thrilled overseas audiences during the club’s U19 tours to the Netherlands over the last two years.
“Leo is a really good player,” said Phohlongo. “Now that he is (in) the PSL squad, it adds to the competition in the team. It’s great and I’m sure that, as the season goes on, whoever is picked to play, the other will fully support him."