If Bafana don't beat Libya, it's Baxter to the drawing board
A series of Nations Cup qualifying fails - and the horror of Seychelles - make this away clash even more crucial
Part of the problem for Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter is that a team who cannot beat Seychelles do not really deserve to be going to an Africa Cup of Nations.
This is a statement made with full cognizance of the fact that Bafana just drew with a side of the quality of Gernot Rohr’s excellently drilled, intelligent, big, physical and skilful 2018 World Cup qualifiers Nigeria on Saturday – and that SA still can qualify with a draw away against Libya.
It’s a statement made knowing full well that Baxter shocked Nigeria 2-0 in Uyo in his first game in charge – an historic, first competitive win against the Super Eagles – at the start of these qualifiers. If anything, that result qualifies the initial statement even further. Because when you begin your qualifying campaign with a result like that, away, against the strongest team in the group, Nigeria, who are a little overconfident, and know nothing about this new coach and his new team, it’s a gift on a platter.
When a year and five months later you are left having to draw away against your joint-second-strongest opposition, Libya, in their backyard in North Africa – probably in Tunisia – something has gone wrong with that qualifying campaign.
Everyone else has thrashed Seychelles in every game. Nigeria beat them 3-0 away, and, having qualified on Saturday, meet Seychelles in an academic match at home in March.
Libya thrashed the islanders 5-1 at home, and, making a further mockery of Bafana’s 0-0 away draw last month, hammered them 8-1 in Victoria on Saturday.
If SA do not reach Cameroon 2019, the reason will be spelled S-E-Y-C-H-E-L-L-E-S. This would be intensely frustrating.
Bafana were missing Keagan Dolly, Bongani Zungu, Dean Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo against Nigeria. With Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba emerging as African superstars (Tau is loved in Nigeria currently, and Rohr raved about him) this promising team need to go to a Nations Cup. Which makes Baxter’s irritation, even on the back of such a good performance as Saturday’s 0-0 draw at FNB Stadium, at tough but legitimate questions on points dropped not just once against Seychelles, but twice if you include the 0-0 draw in Durban against Libya, irritating.
There is something the public don’t know about me and Stuart Baxter. Why would they – it’s not overly important. I once bumped into Baxter at Planet Fitness in Illovo, around the time of his second season at Kaizer Chiefs, when Amakhosi, after winning a league and cup double the previous season, were struggling. Baxter, like any ex-professional sportsman might (do people know that Baxter played with the 1966 England World Cup-winner Nobby Stiles – global football’s historic version of Linda Buthelezi – at Preston North End in the 1970s?), was pushing himself hard in the gym.
It seemed a little more than just normal pushing though. He’d returned to SA the season before unbelievably bravely after the cloud of abuse he’d left under, having failed to reach the 2006 World Cup as Bafana coach in 2005, and shown everyone he was no hack of a coach at all (as he had been portrayed, mostly in a hostile media) by winning trophies at Chiefs. His second season was not going as well. A big failure would have made all his detractors say again, we told you so.
He had the look of a man in the gym punishing not just his body, but his mind, willing himself to do more, not just lifting those weights, but professionally, to give everything, because this current task at Chiefs meant everything.
Amakhosi did not win a trophy in 2013-14, although they were unfortunate league runners-up to Mamelodi Sundowns. They went on to another league and cup double in 2014-15. Baxter’s credibility in SA had been fully restored.
When Stuart Baxter has to take some of the level of criticism he’s been subjected to returning to Bafana (some justified because he blew a 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign that was not quite on a platter, but certainly do-able; some, though, just plain hostile and less founded in facts, but clearly from a position of personal dislike) it stings more because it undoes much of that credibility he earned back through steel and bravery.
There is something that Baxter does not know about me and him. I have met some of his personal friends in Johannesburg – I’m not sure how close, but the kind the coach and his wife would most likely have around to dinner parties. They confided in me around the time of the Cape Verde defeats that saw the bottom fall out of the World Cup campaign, that this was not through a fault of Baxter’s, but because nothing had changed in SA football, and the coach was experiencing the same old problems (lack of support from his association, a hostile media) as back in 2004 and 2005.
If this is what Baxter is telling his dinner friends, it’s disingenuous. The mistakes he made against Cape Verde were his own, and they were glaring. Fast-forward a year and the same can be said of Seychelles. And against Seychelles there were not the mitigating circumstances of the coach being new in the job.
Baxter has not been overly vocally supported by the SA Football Association since the World Cup disaster, but he hasn’t been undermined either. His cosy relationship with technical director Neil Tovey, if anything, seems to afford a form of protection. Which leaves us at Libya. It leaves us also, at some level, with what to do with this Stuart Baxter.
Did Baxter get a panning after the draw against Seychelles? Of course he did. Was it justified? Of course it was. Did some of us say he should go? Yes. Can he turn around his tenure at Bafana? Yes, he can.
Those who continue to put Baxter down as some sort of incompetent hack are wrong. He showed again, with Saturday’s draw against the Super Eagles, that his teams can play technically very sound football. More than predecessor Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba, for the chorus who have shouted at the press and Safa for supposedly removing Baxter’s predecessor unfairly.
Even against Nigeria there were mistakes. The recall of Thulani Serero (which has Tovey’s influence stamped all over it) after three snubs of the national team was ridiculous. Once he was called up he had to be played. Serero jogged around FNB avoiding contact and shirking the ball like it had Ebola. Never call him again.
Thamsanqa Mkhize at right-back backfired. Mkhize, who crosses better than Ramahlwe Mphahlele, would have been a good choice against Seychelles, where he would have been under no threat defensively. Against Nigeria, the more experienced, defensively sound Mphahlele was surely the right choice.
Other than that, Bafana were well prepared and had a good plan. Tau was supreme. Mothiba scored his fourth goal in five games. The emergence of Mothiba is giving Baxter what he lacked in the World Cup qualifiers – a monstrous centre-forward who can bustle, hold the ball up, and finish. These two players especially deserve to go to a Nations Cup. They need to for their continued development. Which is why, draw or win against Libya, and reach Cameroon 2019, Baxter again will be some form of hero in this deranged world of national team football coaching.
Then, like in his second season at Chiefs, from a desperately necessary point of view of seeing some progression from this national team, even just to have the fans back in the stands, and begin reversing this Pavlov’s dog effect of negativity, Bafana need to progress past the group stages.
Losing against Libya will mean denying Tau, Mothiba and the other emerging talent in this very promising generation a Nations Cup and spurning that chance to get the country behind Bafana again. And then that Seychelles result, and the mistakes made, and not just two, but three major tournament qualifying campaign fails by Baxter, will make it very hard to motivate for him to have a chance at a fourth.
Perhaps, as a solution to this conundrum, let’s just beat Libya.