Injuries make it an unhappy return for Baxter
STUART BAXTER was reminded yesterday that the challenges of international football, even before taking charge of his first Bafana Bafana game as coach since returning for a second spell, never really went away during his 12 years as a club coach.
What was an ideal squad picked with the intention of tormenting Nigeria in their opening 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifier in Uyo on Saturday appears to be dismantling because of injuries, although team doctor Thulani Ngwenya remained confident that the Bafana medical team can avoid a catastrophe.
Ngwenya said that Eric Mathoho (concussion), Rivaldo Coetzee (hamstring), Andile Jali (groin), Tiyani Mabunda (ankle), Aubrey Ngoma (groin), Lebogang Manyama (knee) and Tokelo Rantie (swollen toe, knee) all arrived in camp with injuries that needed to be carefully assessed.
To add to what is clearly not a perfect scenario, Nigeria have been in camp for three weeks, managing to squeeze in two friendly matches against Corsica and Togo, while Bafana only assembled on Sunday as the coach couldn’t get the players to report early due to sponsorship commitments.
So it seems that Bafana are a little on the backfoot.
“We could have flagged this earlier,” said Baxter. “I think we all need to work harder at making sure the communication is much better. Obviously the clubs have not told us of these injury concerns because they felt it was something serious enough to miss a national team camp over.
“Our lack of communication with the clubs has been followed by our lack of communication about the players. And we took that as the norm because it has been happening in the past. The clubs have not been open as they should be. They are not being bloody-minded, but that is how it has been.
“A little bit of openness can help us moving forward. It would be a minor disaster if players are arriving for camp and they go straight from the plane to hospital.”
On the international stage, a couple of variables often almost determine how Bafana will fare in a crucial qualifier. Baxter would have been well aware, but having spent over a decade as a club coach following his first stint as Bafana head coach from 2004 to 2005 and kept up to speed with the day-to-day running of who’s in and who’s out, the far from ideal preparation would have been unsettling and slightly annoying.
“We are not fazed,” the Bafana coach said, pointing out that he had complete faith in the players that remain fit and, to an extent, even those who could possibly be on standby should scans later on force more withdrawals.
Already Baxter is without Hlompho Kekana and Kamohelo Mokotjo, two in-form players with the ability to turn a game on its head. The Super Eagles are the kind of opponent that needed Bafana to have this duo.
“We respect them (Nigeria) because of the quality in the team and their recent long unbeaten run,” said Baxter. “I can’t lie and say it’s the team I visualised, but when we arrive in Nigeria the lads will be up for it. They will prove and show they are South African internationals and capable of going there to get a (positive) result.
“This is some sort of adversity, but I have spoken to the players about the pride of wearing this shirt. They are probably sick of my voice now, but that is part of the job. Nigeria are a top opponent, but we are going there to fight. Yes, we would have liked to have more time to prepare because now the injuries mean the training sessions will be a bit like gymnastics.
“But I have no doubt in my mind that we are going to be able to adapt.”
Speaking of adjusting, defender Thulani “Tyson” Hlatshwayo will also have to do just as much in his new role as Bafana captain. The Wits skipper was chosen by Baxter to be the leader of the team.
“I think he has all the qualities,” the 63-year-old coach said.
“He will be a permanent captain because I don’t believe in rotating the armband around because it is something that you tarnish if you give it to 16 players in one season.
“‘Tyson’ has all the experience in the PSL and in continental football as a whole. There is also the possibility of having a group captain and a team captain. A group captain can be someone who helps speak for the team if there are any issues to be raised, and I don’t think ‘Tyson’ quite fancies that. Maybe Itumeleng Khune or Dean Furman wouldn’t mind those kind of things.”