The Bafana Bafana coach is a man on a mis­sion

With two two World World Cup qual­i­fiers against Cape Cape Verde Verde loom­ing, loom­ing KICK OFF’s Mark Glee­son sat down with new na­tional team coach Stu­art Bax­ter to talk about the Nigeria win, mould­ing a fight­ing unit and the coun­try’s chances of mak­ing

Kick Off - - INSIDE - BY MARK GLEE­SON | Twit­ter: @mark­gleeson­foot

KICK OFF: How much does tak­ing on the Bafana Bafana job mid­way through what might turn out to be a suc­cess­ful World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign have to do with mak­ing up for the dis­ap­point­ment of the 2006 cam­paign when qual­i­fi­ca­tion was lost right near the end of what looked to be a smooth cam­paign?

STU­ART BAX­TER: The mo­ti­va­tion for me is that in 2006 I thought we (South African foot­ball) would be re­cep­tive to some of the things I wanted to do, but we weren’t. Maybe I was naïve. But I cer­tainly think there has been a slight wind of change in the game here. The league has de­vel­oped and the as­so­ci­a­tion have been say­ing to me they want to do cer­tain things now, so I’m hop­ing we will get those things I wanted to do the first time, fin­ished. Hope­fully that will lead to the coun­try tak­ing part in a ma­jor cham­pi­onship.

You got off to a pos­i­tive start against Nigeria ... how im­por­tant was that vic­tory?

The re­sult in it­self was maybe a shock for a lot of peo­ple, but for me it was vi­tal to get off to a good start. We maybe didn’t need to go there and beat them 2-0, but we cer­tainly needed to go there, play well and kin­dle some op­ti­mism. Beat­ing Nigeria, given the his­tory be­tween the two coun­tries, def­i­nitely comes un­der the head­ing “good start”, I would think. It gives the play­ers con­fi­dence that good things are on the hori­zon, and it gives me con­fi­dence that we can ac­tu­ally com­pete with the best. It puts the wind up our back rather than in our faces, so it’s not just good for me but for ev­ery­body.

Were you taken aback at the po­ten­tial of the side?

I was sur­prised that Nigeria had been in camp in France for three weeks, played a cou­ple of friendly games, smashed Togo 3-0 and drew with a French re­gional side. We’d been in camp for three, four days. We had a hor­ren­dously long, ar­du­ous trip to Nigeria and yet the lads were fresh, sharp and bright, and took on board very quickly what we wanted to do in the game. That I was sur­prised with. Pleas­antly sur­prised, I must say!

Does South Africa, with its in­fra­struc­ture and eco­nomic might, re­main a mas­sive un­der achiever in foot­ball, es­pe­cially in African com­pe­ti­tion?

Yes, I think that’s cor­rect. The game has been held back by di­vi­sive­ness. Those in the South African game have never re­ally been on the same page. I’ve worked at clubs in the league and I’ve also worked for Safa and I know what the attitude is to­wards the league and what the clubs think of the gov­ern­ing body. We need to unite ev­ery­body be­hind a strat­egy of “how do we present South Africa to the world?”. If we go to the World Cup, we have got to take some­thing South African there. Not a ver­sion of what some peo­ple think is good foot­ball and some peo­ple think is not, but have a South African way of playing that can also win games and shock the world. If we go to Rus­sia, there is no point in go­ing there and los­ing ev­ery game be­cause we are just naïve. We need to go there and have peo­ple say, “Wow, that’s not Brazil, not Ar­gentina, Eng­land, Ger­many, that’s South Africa!” There needs to be pride and I feel at the mo­ment the shoots of a young tree are just com­ing through. For a long time it has been di­vi­sive, de­fen­sive and not con­ducive to real de­vel­op­ment. But I think we can get on the same page, and we can be­come a power house.

With your ex­pe­ri­ence of coach­ing across the world – Ja­pan, Eng­land, Scan­di­navia and pre­vi­ous spells in Africa – what is the po­ten­tial of the South African foot­baller, seen to be tech­ni­cally gifted but with many de­fi­cien­cies? Are you work­ing with un­cut gems?

To a de­gree, yes. As far as game man­age­ment and un­der­stand­ing what wins games, South African play­ers are a lit­tle naïve. In many cases, they are very mo­bile, tech­ni­cally good, their de­ci­sion mak­ing is not al­ways the best but that is based on “what are we try­ing to do?” or “how do we win this game?”. If I look back to the 1996 African Na­tions Cup with play­ers like Mark Fish, Phil Masinga and Neil Tovey, you don’t see any of those kinds of play­ers around any­more. We have drifted to­wards a very tech­ni­cal ap­proach, an en­ter­tain­ing ap­proach. But I think we drifted away from what won us the Na­tions Cup at that time and drifted to a more crowd-pleas­ing mode that we have only just started to come out of be­cause we don’t like the fact that other coun­tries have gone away from us [in terms of achieve­ment]. I feel that the wind of change is there and there is more ad­mi­ra­tion for other qual­i­ties. But I’m not say­ing we should throw the baby out with the bath wa­ter be­cause the pre­vi­ous ap­proach has de­vel­oped some very skill­ful and gifted play­ers. We need to mould that into a fight­ing unit and they need to have their

role along­side a more phys­i­cally dom­i­nant player so that we don’t go to Ghana, Nigeria or wher­ever, en­ter­tain every­one and then lose 3-0 on three set plays be­cause the op­po­nent is that much stronger than we are. Mould­ing that fight­ing unit is the chal­lenge we all have in the South African game.

Are you con­fi­dent you’ll be among the 32 coaches at the World Cup fi­nals in Rus­sia next year?

I don’t think any­body can be con­fi­dent in foot­ball, but you can be con­fi­dent in your prepa­ra­tion and con­fi­dent in your play­ers. I know the whole na­tion is des­per­ate to reach a ma­jor cham­pi­onship so if it is down to hard work, good prepa­ra­tion and ded­i­ca­tion then I think we have a very good chance. KO

(Above) Bax­ter is con­fi­dent he can lead Bafana to Rus­sia 2018.

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