Coaching a club and a national team is a matter of chalk and cheese
If ever there was a scenario that once more proves how different coaching a national team is to guiding a club, it’s Stuart Baxter’s positions.
The Englishman started with a bang, defeating Bafana Bafana’s nemesis Nigeria 2-0 in Uyo on Saturday.
But, by the time the match was played, there were already some rumblings within the national team camp about the pending friendly match against Zambia on Tuesday.
What irked the players – with the Briton chipping in as well, though a bit diplomatically – was not facing Chipolopolo but the timing and, to some extent, the venue.
Some players complained about the lack of rest, given the extensive travelling involved between OR Tambo International Airport, Lagos and then Uyo, returning to South Africa and then heading off to North West for the friendly game.
Others mentioned that they were in the off-season, meaning they needed some rest.
And, given all the circumstances, it came as no surprise when Baxter named an almost entirely new starting line-up, with Andile Jali and Percy Tau the only two players who had seen action against Nigeria being named on the sheet.
The loss against Zambia dampened the spirits somewhat, given the highs at the weekend after that historic victory.
However, to be honest, Baxter was caught between a rock and a hard place – not a very comfortable position to be in.
While there was a need to give younger and untested players an opportunity – which will go a long way towards tournaments such as the Cosafa Castle Cup and African Nations Championship, which demand the use of locally based players only – the nation demands a win almost every time the players trot out in national colours.
Also, it is imperative for the coach to sustain a regular team that will gel together during the forthcoming competitions, such as the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), as well as the 2018 Russia World Cup qualifiers, which come up later in the year.
This is the conundrum most national coaches find themselves in – managing the balancing act.
It is always difficult to balance the art of winning while developing players for the future.
This is where the song of development that we have been singing for ages comes in.
The national team should not be a place to experiment and players should be the finished product by the time they reach senior national team level.
A seamless development programme should also allow the national coach to have a large pool of players at senior level to choose from – players who can be divided into two categories: senior and junior players.
And, depending on the category of the match, the coach will have a clear view of which players to utilise.
I doubt that Baxter would like to have a record that reads “won one, lost one” right at the beginning of his tenure. But that’s what he has right now.
However, looking at how Baxter approached the match against Nigeria, I would say “Way to go!”.
Bafana Bafana played with an amount of zest that we haven’t seen for quite some time.
It was a spirited effort similar to what we witnessed at the beginning of Shakes Mashaba’s reign.
The keyword for Baxter now will be consistency.
The start was good ... actually, great, and now Baxter needs to build on it to ensure that the team qualifies for next year’s World Cup and the 2019 Afcon.
It is achievable, but Baxter will have to stay focused and even plan carefully with the SA Football Association regarding the arrangement of friendly matches.
These should be lined up in such a way that they fit snugly with Baxter’s plan of turning Bafana Bafana into the giants that the nation dreams about.
One just hopes Tuesday’s blip was just that – a blip – and not part of the pattern we have become used to of Bafana taking two steps forwards and 10 steps backwards.