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: 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.