Bafana wins show need for a youthful boost
Hopefully, Stuart Baxter sees that an emphasis on youth does not necessarily mean a slump in results
Bafana Bafana's victory at the Four Nations in Zambia might have come in a strangely organised friendly tournament against all-too familiar opposition, but perhaps it has shown Stuart Baxter that an emphasis on youth can have winning benefits.
It was a timely morale boost ahead of the September resumption of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
The detractors have already begun to say that it is nothing new, that results such as South Africa's penalties win against Angola in the semifinal, and 2-0 victory against the hosts in the final are nothing special, because Bafana always win friendlies.
One cannot blame them for their scepticism.Last year, how many long-suffering fans were heard to say they were giving up on the national team, as Bafana botched a World Cup qualifying campaign that was there for the taking with pathetic home and away defeats against Cape Verde, with some players inexcusably partying in Durban after the second?
Such can only be a natural reaction after 15 years of very few highlights from a team that has had players capable of doing so much more, but that has suffered from being kicked to pieces as a political football by the administrators of the game and a consequent lack of commitment from the players called up to it.
But the wins in Zambia have to be taken in context.
For the first, against Angola, due to the shabby organisation and the games being brought forward a day by the organisers, both teams had one training session to prepare, so it was no wonder it came to the lottery of the penalty shootout.
Bafana fought back from a goal down, which was encouraging. Reeve Frosler, Motjeka Madisha and Lebogang Mothiba were given debuts.
Mothiba scored the goal that saw Bafana fight back from 1-0 down. Al Ahly prospect Phakamani Mahlambi was singled out by Baxter afterwards for his ability to change the game, getting behind Angola in the second half.
The final would always be the true test against the hosts, in front of a big, noisy crowd at Levy Mwanawasa Stadium.Innocent Maela, Teboho Mokoena and Siphesihle Ndlovu made their debuts. Mothiba scored again, as this new-look Bafana put two past the hosts, Percy Tau confirming his rising star with the second.
Mothiba has put his name forward for the Afcon qualifiers where, again, Bafana, after starting with a first competitive win against Nigeria, and away at that, again have the group at their feet when they meet Libya at home in early September.
But hopefully Baxter will have a few more of the youngsters taken to Zambia, and perhaps some who will also put their hands up when South Africa plan to send an effective under-23 team to the Cosafa Cup in Botswana in June, in mind for the Afcon too.
The coach, so maligned after his team selections played a crucial role in last year's World Cup disaster, refreshingly has recognised the need to fast-track youth into Bafana to shake free the culture of not fielding young players “until they are ready”, which too often in this country has been at 25. He has correctly said national players need to start earning experience far earlier.But Baxter so often accompanies this reassurance with the warning that it might come at the expense of results.One can understand the coach urging caution, to some extent. He had a torrid period as Bafana coach in 2004 and 2005, when a largely hostile media and the court of public opinion, and the immense noise surrounding that, played a role in the coach's ultimate failure.
It took just six months for that noise to be raised to a similar volume in the coach's second stint, so one cannot blame him for feeling a little raw.
But perhaps from the experience in Zambia, Baxter, too, could see that an emphasis on youth, crucially building for the future, does not necessarily mean a slump in results.
All teams need constant regeneration. As Wits coach Gavin Hunt always says: “A team should never be young together, and a team should never grow old together.”
In other words, never have a group of youngsters with no old heads to guide them. And never allow a group of players to age together in a squad, because a crash will come at some stage.
Always introduce youth when they are ready to play, because they add energy and hunger to a squad, and keep the older players motivated and looking over their shoulders at the upstarts raring to take their places. And this, actually, is a winning formula, and not one to be afraid of, but to embrace.