Ntseki lifts lid on Bafana mess
Molefi Ntseki sat in the Bafana Bafana hot seat for nearly two years but continually faced derision from supporters and critics for his seemingly timid persona and apparent lack of experience before his unceremonious sacking. The 51-year-old tactician opens up to KICK OFF’s Chad Kelly-Klate to reveal everything that took place during his ill-fated stint in the build-up and aftermath of the team’s 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying failure.
Molefi Ntseki was not your typical figure in charge of a senior national team, having had relatively no experience as a head coach at top-tier club level, and was certainly never seeking the grandeur that so effortlessly comes with holding the job.
His humility, in fact, was refreshing as it was intriguing. A walk to his office on the far-right wing of SAFA House in Nasrec, Johannesburg, prior to his sacking, was all it took to realise how modest a person he really is.
The somewhat barren cabinet in one corner of the room is no sign of his lack of success, which he has achieved plenty of, albeit intangible.
The Botshabelo-born tactician started out his post-schooling career as a teacher and coached football as an extra-mural activity, before earning his big break with Welkom Stars, whom he led from the Vodacom League (now known as ABC Mostepe League) to the National First Division.
He was then head hunted by the Harmony Sports Academy before returning to professional football with African Warriors, where he spent two years in the National First Division, to being called to Serame Letsoaka’s side that went to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009.
“I started with the national teams in 2009, with coach Serame, going into the World Cup in Egypt,” Ntseki says.
“In that team we had Darren Keet, Thela Ngobeni, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Siyanda Xulu, Rama Mphahlele, Ace Bhengu, Sibusiso Khumalo, Andile Jali, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Thulani Serero, Daylon Claasen, Mandla Masango, Sameehg Doutie, George Maluleka, who was a striker with Kermit Erasmus, Thulani Ngcepe and Dino Ndlovu,” Ntseki recalls.
“And if you look at that team, I will say 90 percent of those players ended up achieving the highest level of football, playing in the PSL and some went on to move overseas, and most are still playing at the top level today. So, for me, that was our cream in terms of talent in the country.”
He left SAFA for a brief period to take up a job at Bloemfontein Celtic as assistant to Clinton Larsen and the head of youth from 2012, but return in 2014 to lead the national Under-17 team while also assisting at Under-20, Under-23 and senior levels with the likes of Thabo Senong, Owen da Gama and Shakes Mashaba.
Taking the Bafana hot seat
After being appointed successor to Stuart Baxter, whom he assisted and helped to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, Ntseki adopted a plan to take the senior national team to the next level, similar to what he had done with the Under-17s.
“Asking myself, ‘How do I take Bafana Bafana to the next level?’, I came up with a program called ‘Elite Football’, which focused on how we track, monitor and protect our talented youngsters so that the pipeline leads to a Bafana Bafana that benefits from the development of these players,” he explains.
“YOU HAVE TO SLEEP ON THE FLOOR BECAUSE NO ARRANGEMENTS WERE MADE.”
“We had the selection committee, which looked at a wide variety of players, with a database of all those players we want to bring into the squad. We kept profiling those players every time we had to select the team.
“We would be saying, for example, ‘Where is Mothobi Mvala? How is he doing? Is he playing? Is he doing well?’. We were thorough about the players we had identified, and when we got into team selection meetings, we wouldn’t have everybody coming up with their own players because that’s counterproductive.
“We had annual workshops with all the national team coaches to review the progress of each team and assess the successes, challenges, lessons and areas to improve. We also identified the players that we needed to safeguard to make sure that we put them in the talent pipeline, so as to not get lost along the way.
“The final part was to sell myself and get into the circle of Bafana players, so I made a presentation for them to know who I am, what the challenges were that we
faced as Bafana Bafana, from an individual and a collective perspective, as well as what we were going to be doing with regards to tracking players. The project started very well but some of this was obviously affected by COVID-19.”
What went wrong in the AFCON qualifiers?
Ntseki admits the results in the final two games on March 25 and 28 were nothing short of disappointing but felt the scheduling of fixtures proved a massive stumbling block, particularly the away match in Omdurman that allowed for only one training session the night before the game.
“It’s a disappointment from all of us, because when you look at our turnaround strategy, we had everything in place, and I think we did very well despite the challenges we had to go through.
“Accumulating 10 points [in the qualification pool] shows a lot of commitment and hard work from each member of Bafana Bafana, and for that we need to give credit to the players, especially when you look at COVID-19.
“I think it affected mainly South Africa in a very negative way because, when you look at the last qualifiers, it is only South Africans that were not allowed to join their national team; as for the rest of Africa, everybody was allowed to join,” he says.
“You have nine days, but you ended up playing both games within four days; why not play on 25 March and second on 30 or 31 March? We thought, ‘Because the next game is away, let’s give ourselves time for travel and recovery of the players’ – it didn’t happen.
“After the Ghana game, the arrangement was to leave immediately, which meant whoever was injured couldn’t be attended to.
“So, we left for Sudan via Ethiopia, you are on your feet from 7am [on Thursday] – you get to the airport and go through the [COVID-19] protocols, get into an economy flight at 12:30am for five hours to Addis Ababa. On arrival, you did not do any form of regeneration, you have to sleep on the floor because no arrangements were made; you wait six hours to connect and go to Sudan. You arrive in Sudan at 2pm in the afternoon, immediately you go for lunch and after that it’s COVID-19 tests, and then you have a little bit of rest.
“I think we had an hour rest and then at 6pm, we had a pool session. That was Friday. So, you were on your feet the whole day on Thursday, travelled through the night and through the day, and then on Saturday at the stadium, you are given one hour preparation – you have lost Andile Jali, you lost Rivaldo Coetzee; Percy Tau is 70-80 percent ready to perform, because after the game the doctors never had time to attend to him and help with his recovery.
“In the game, every player was pushing very hard but unfortunately on the day we couldn’t score. So, the result means we have failed to qualify. A very bitter pill to swallow, even now I still feel very bad for the team not having qualified, and it’s the same feeling the players are feeling because they were all looking forward to going to AFCON and maybe improving on their last performances in Egypt. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.”
The infamous sacking via social media
Rather bemusing but not in the least bit surprising, Ntseki and his management agency found out that SAFA had wielded the axe on the coach via the media, following a press conference held at SAFA House three days after the Sudan match.
Leading up to that moment, Ntseki admits he was planning on a recovery strategy ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, which kick-off in June.
“All that is important [in that situation] is to remain calm and focussed, to say, ‘Yes, it happened to the best so if it is happening to me, it means I have an opportunity to recover and do things right’. But as you are about to entertain that possibility, you see on media platforms that you are fired,” he reflects.
“We came back on Monday and then the press conference was on Wednesday, so whoever fired the coach is saying, ‘For Bafana Bafana not to qualify, it is only a technical problem – the man who let us down is the coach, nobody else’. Logistics did not contribute; administration did not contribute; travelling did not contribute.
“The resolutions and key issues that we had presented to the president and CEO when we had our workshop on January 23 and 24, 2021, none of that was executed to help the team qualify.
“But now, the problem is with the coach, so the whole world must know that the coach has failed the country, and nothing was done for him. We can’t, honestly, fault anybody in terms of commitment and willingness to win and achieve.
“I must give credit to the players despite the challenges, I think they did very well. It
“I DON’T FEEL EMBARRASSED TO GET FIRED BUT I THINK THE WHOLE SITUATION OF FIRING THE NATIONAL TEAM COACH HAS EMBARRASSED EVERYBODY.”
was just unfortunate for all of us not to have qualified.
“Not qualifying becomes a big scar, and somebody comes around and becomes emotional, and doesn’t even follow the right procedure or protocols in firing the coach, so you end up asking yourself, ‘Is this the same employer that had so much confidence in me in the first place?
“Why has he turned around and given this type of treatment, when he’s the same employer who believed in you so much that he gave you the position of Bafana Bafana coach?
“Secondly, it is the same employer that knows you were there when the whole Vision 2022 started, and you are the same employee who made it possible for Vision 2022 to be as successful as it is.’”
Is Ntseki the scapegoat?
South Africans knew that firing the coach was not the solution to Bafana Bafana’s problems, with calls for accountability and resignation from within the SAFA hierarchy following on social media.
However, those calls fell on deaf ears and instead, the association leadership failed to attend their own press conference and answer to the nation.
“If ever somebody becomes emotional to say, ‘Molefi must go’, without a proper analysis of the situation to say, ‘What led to the team failing?’ – not what led to Molefi failing, it is the emotional part that has embarrassed everybody.
“I don’t feel embarrassed to get fired but I think the whole situation of firing the national team coach has embarrassed everybody,” Ntseki continues.
“If the players sent you a message to say, ‘Coach, we are sorry to have let you down’. It is not about you letting me down, it’s about us – we failed as a team. You cannot blame an individual to say, ‘You made a mistake for them to score’, or maybe, ‘You made a mistake to miss a chance’ – no, it was all out of the team effort.
“So even today, they actually wanted to portray it as a Molefi Ntseki matter, but now everybody is embarrassed. So, are we saying whoever will be coming in next [to coach Bafana], you are going to give him the best support and that person will qualify for and win the World Cup? They will win all the matches?
“If somebody can say that to me, now that they have terminated my contract, I will definitely go and resign, even though they have terminated my contract.”
Dealing with public derision
Since his appointment, Ntseki had to put up with scepticism and criticism that he was SAFA’s ‘cheap option’ amid an alleged financial crisis, and the flames were never put out throughout his 578 days in charge.
Reflecting there upon, he feels it was a conscious decision by the powers that be not to promote his image.
“I think we need to understand South Africans in the first place, we are a very negative nation because we come from a very negative background. And some people feel privileged to their opinion, and when somebody says, ‘You’ve hired somebody who’s not the right man for the job’, who has ever been the right man for the job at Bafana Bafana?
“Who is that person and why is that person not still the Bafana Bafana coach? Because over years, it is the same media who will be saying, ‘ The coach must go’. It is the same media that was calling for Stuart Baxter to go, when he had achieved so much after so many years of Bafana Bafana failing to do well in the AFCON,” he says candidly.
“For the first time after so many years – more than a decade, he managed to get position eight, but the same public and media were saying, ‘Stuart Baxter must go’. When Stuart Baxter decided to leave, then SAFA, because of the background that they have with me – building and empowering me over years, and me also empowering myself, now I’m not the right person for the job – Why?
“Because they’ve got their own choices and their own people. Yes, it is true that the media department from SAFA in particular did not do the right PR work to say, ‘ This is the man, these are his credentials, this is what he has done, and this is his CV.’
“They did not want to go out there and make the public understand, because if ever they have to report about Molefi Ntseki, they keep on saying, ‘ The former Under-17 national team coach who is now Bafana Bafana coach’, what pictures are you creating in the minds of football people?
“But this is the very same man who has been an assistant to Shakes Mashaba, Owen da Gama, Stuart Baxter; the same man who went to AFCON with Stuart Baxter, but you don’t want to make mention of that – deliberately so, because you want to belittle him.
“The understanding is that as South Africans, we actually feel good when we have to pull somebody down, but it takes a lot of effort for any South African to lift up each other and make the world respect him.
“People did not know what was happening inside; and people from inside did not tell the world what was happening inside; and the whole world did not know what good was happening inside, and there was a lot of good happening inside, but for them to ignore the good happening inside and not publicise it to the world was actually working for them.
“Whoever was supposed to do that, seemingly had a problem with the appointment of Molefi Ntseki from the word go.”
“WE ARE A VERY NEGATIVE NATION BECAUSE WE COME FROM A VERY NEGATIVE BACKGROUND.”