It is rare to be afforded a chance to make a second impression, especially after the first one was not as successful as hoped back in Stuart Baxter’s first spell in 2004 and 2005. However, the Brit is now back at the helm to help carve out the way for Sou
The Bafana Bafana coach urges everyone to get on board with his long-term plan.
Fifteen years have lapsed since Bafana last earned their way into world football’s biggest competition, when Portuguese manager Carlos Queiros lead the country to the Korea/Japan World Cup in 2002. Seventeen appointments later, all eyes are now on Baxter to lead the nation to the 2018 finals in Russia. Having been appointed at the start of June, as a succesor to Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba who was sacked in November 2016, Baxter has more than just the job of succesfully leading a team through World Cup, Nations Cup, Chan qualification and Cosafa fixtures, but is also tasked with convincing more than 55-million South Africans that he can successfully follow through with Safa’s technical masterplan dubbed ‘ Vision 2022’. It is only since ‘ Vision 2022’ has come into effect that we have seen a turn-around in the junior national teams’ performances, with the men’s Under-17 side qualifying for the Fifa U-17 World Cup in 2015 for the first time in the country’s history, the under-20s participating in the 2017 Fifa U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2009, while the Under-23s qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games for the first time since 2000. Thus it is of crucial importance that these generations be groomed and looked after as we build towards the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but at the same time Baxter believes it would be a great loss to discard what the “Class of 2009” achieved when they qualified for the U-20 World Cup in Egypt. “I think you’ve got to take every advantage that’s been gained in the past, and try and encorporate that in any vision you’ve got going forward,” says Baxter. “We only have a few players that have been given the experience of World Cups, because we’ve not qualified for them in the past, so we’ve got to try and get the most out of that investment.” The British tactician called up seven (eight prior to the withdrawal of goalkeeper Darren Keet due to a knee injury) of the players from Serame Letsoaka’s junior squad to his camp to prepare for the all-important Cape Verde fixtures, with these possibly making up the core of the Bafana team for next year’s World Cup as a ‘return on investment’ of sorts. “Yes, that is a thought in our minds that we need to use the investment we’ve got in some players to see if they can be the players for the future, but also not exclusively because you get players developing at different stages,” he adds. “The players that should have been playing then  maybe weren’t developed, but they are coming strong now. But in any sort of process you’ve got to try and use every bit of leverage you can get to bring the best out of the squad.”
More recently Owen Da Gama guided the national U-23 team to the semi-finals of the African Championships in Senegal, subsequently landing a place at the Rio Games, where the likes of Abbubakar Mobara, Keagan Dolly and Rivaldo Coetzee gained valuable expereince on a major international stage. This too was considered by Baxter and his technical team, while he explains that the more experienced members of the squad could be considered ‘late bloomers’. “The Olympic team also has some international experience, and if the players are good enough then there is a sort of selection process, and they will get an opportunity,” assures the former SuperSport United and Kaizer Chiefs mentor. “You may not be good enough at the moment, but you may come back into the system and get a late opportunity, but there’s a selection progress already going on.” With more than 70 percent of the players in the squad for the Cape Verde qualifiers locally based, Baxter also admits that the financial growth of the Premier Soccer League now means plying your trade in a lower division in some of the smaller European leagues has become of less value than playing for a domestic club that regularly competes in CAF club competitions. “Of course, you’ll get that the PSL is stronger and better funded now, so you will get players that don’t feel the move [abroad] is worth it,” he says. “Why go to a second division team in Belgium if you can play for Mamelodi Sundowns? Of course you’re going to get that, and we have to recognise that this is actually better. We’ve got to admit that the experience they get at a club like Sundowns is a better experience than they’re going to get there [in a European lower division]. They will play against African international opposition.” Baxter feels the key to making Bafana an African powerhouse again is bringing all these groups and players together, to form one united national team that can perform at the required level on the international stage, without placing too much value on the individuals’ ability and talent. “You’ve got to take all of that into account, decide how you want to play and determine which players lend themselves to being international players. It’s not always the best players that can manage the international experience,” he explains. “I know that when [former Italy coach] Marcello Lippi left his job, he said he had ‘the three technically best play- ers in the country’ available when Italy won the World Cup [in 2006], ‘but they just couldn’t hack international football’. “What he meant was players not being able to come into camp, not knowing the players they’re going to play with, not knowing about the players they’re going to play against, have three or four sessions and then be able to give a performance. He said they couldn’t do that. He said, ‘I got hammerred when I left them at home, but it was about finding out who are the best international players.’ So there’s all those dynamics that you’ve got to put together, give the players the opportunity to get the experience, and still bring it together so that the squad of players you get is ready to play for the country.”
Results versus development
Baxter’s biggest challenge – in accordance with Safa’s long-term vision – is seeing out the previously mentioned process while still managing to blood in young talent and ensuring sustainability of the national team beyond the present squad, and at the same time ensuring the team does not fail to qualify and represent the country to a satisfactory level at major international tournaments. “That is a bit of a core question, and my answer to that is: we have to change our thinking,” responds Baxter. “Without talking about how Safa’s mentality towards
“We all need to get on the same page.”
games before, or how the coaches before me have thought, basically every coach wants to stay in a job – if the expectations of his employer, the media, the supporters and the stakeholders is that he wins every game, then no development can take place because he won’t take risks. “If I’m going to take risks by bringing in a younger player that, in a must-win game, will not maybe give me the quality performance of an older player, then I won’t take a risk and development won’t take place. When I came into the job, I wanted everybody to think about – and we’ve spoken about this already – aims and objectives for every game. The Zambia game, for me, was about development. It was about getting information about the players, such as ‘which players could maybe go into the team in the future’; ‘can this one play that position?’ And I run the risk of losing 2-1 to Zambia. After dominating the game in the first half, and making tactical changes in the second, we lose 2-1 – do I like it? No, but that game is important for us. “We’ve all got to get this: stop winning the less important games because winning isn’t everything, but be prepared to bring in the youngsters and invest time in them. Bring in players that are maybe coming in through the back door as we’ve spoken about, and invest that time into strengthening the squad, deepen the pool of players, and in that case you then start prioritising. World Cup qualifiers are not about development, I don’t want to make excuses. “In a friendly game like the Zambia one, I can say to you I was happy with that game and what it gave me – not happy with the result of course, because we do want to win every game even though we don’t want to say, ‘we’re throwing this game away in the name of development.’ In back-to-back World Cup qualifiers it’s about getting the win and moving on. I don’t want to end up saying, ‘well, we lost 2-1 but the young boy at leftback did really well’ – no, that shouldn’t be the case. “We all need to get on the same page, and know the reason why we’re labelling a certain game ‘development’ and a different one ‘result’— that’s what we’ve got to change. Is it Safa that has got to change? Yes, because that reflects on the coach and how creative he can be and how many risks he will take. If it’s the media and the supporters that are ready to just dive in and hammer that player, because he made a mistake and we lost the game, yes we need to change! “This is why we spoke about Chan and Cosafa – where will that serve us best? Do we scrape together a bunch of PSL hopefuls or people that have failed earlier on, and just scrape through the game? Or do we run the risk of not winning the game by playing seven under-19 players? I think for me it’s a stick-on. And then consider the young South African: when he looks at his path forward, and he says ‘yes, I can see the path – that’s where it will take me, and it will finish there because I can see my role model. I can see a Keagan Dolly – in four years, I can follow his path’ – I think that’s inspring. “There are many reasons we’ve got to get that right. We’ve got to get everybody on board. Will there be voices that come up that don’t agree with it? Yes, of course there will, but if the majority of people – supporters, media, Safa, clubs, players, stakeholders – if they all understand the rationale and get behind it, then that’s a good day for South Africa and we can then work forward from that.” Furthermore, the 64-year-old points out
“Is It safa that has got to change? Yes.”
that a change in mentality is needed by all South Africans, in terms of the way forward and reaching the destination set out as ‘ Vision 2022’. “There’s an old Chinese proverb: ‘Don’t look at your destiny, keep your eyes on the path.’ The path for us is camp by camp, but the destiny is the final result. Now we obviously do care about where we go, but how we get there is what’s really important. If we just keep caring about winning; doing everything we can to win the next game, and the next game, then we have to pick the team that played against Nigeria or Cape Verde and we play them against Zambia [in a friendly] as well, because ‘it’s so important to win this game.’ “Well, I questioned that. I questioned it from many points of view. I can’t argue with it. If every game is equally important then I can’t argue. If the general public say to me that we can never afford to lose a game, and if Safa say I’m sacked if we lose all these games, then I can’t argue. I will then be the same as everyone else, and say, ‘Let me pick my strongest team because I don’t have the chance to play this young centre-back or that young fullback.’ I think if we all get on the same page, it’s a healthier place to be, and the possibilities are also a lot more dynamic,” he concludes.
Above: Baxter chats to Bafana striker, Tokelo Rantie. Main pic: National team coach, Stuart Baxter, with his players during a Bafana Bafana training Session.