Stuart Baxter held court at Safa House in early February, and what came out of the mouth of the Bafana Bafana coach made him sound like a mix between a salesman and a pastor.
The garrulous British coach passionately sold his vision while preaching unity between the South African Football Association (Safa) and the Premier Soccer League (PSL). The two organisations put aside their petty squabbles for the good of the national team. Safa requested that the PSL postpone some of the matches scheduled for the weekend before the Fifa international break, which runs from 18 to 26 March.
The PSL agreed to that request, which will give Baxter more time with the players for Bafana’s crucial Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier against Libya on 22 March in Tunisia, owing to the political instability in Libya. Bafana need at least a draw against the Mediterranean Knights to book a ticket to Egypt for Afcon, which takes place from 21 June to 19 July.
Anything short of this will be disastrous, especially under a coach who failed to take the team to the Fifa World Cup in Russia last year.
“This is a massive game,” Baxter said. “It has nothing to do with my prestige and my longevity. It has to do with the football in this country. I don’t want to make it about Stuart Baxter. If we win, I may go. If we win and I think, yes, we won, but I can’t do a job here because the conditions are this and that, and the co-operation is not on, then let someone else come and do it.
“If we lose, you guys [the media] will be screaming for my head … I’ll get on with or without the national team job. What I would like to do, is to make sure that the players have the right mentality for the game, they aren’t thinking selfishly and are aware of the spin-offs of this game.”
‘Did you do your job properly?’
The Afcon qualifiers and the failed bid to qualify for the World Cup exposed some tactical shortcomings from Baxter. His lowest moment in his tenure was losing back-to-back to Cape Verde in the World Cup qualifiers.
Bafana started on a good note in Praia, taking the lead and looking like they would wipe the floor with the minnows. But instead of putting their opponents to the sword, Bafana took their foot off the pedal and allowed Cape Verde to come back. The Blue Sharks built on that win to stun a tactically disorganised Bafana in Durban to all but end their dreams of going to Russia.
“We are where we are now because we haven’t shown consistency as a team, and that’s my responsibility because I am the one leading the team,” Baxter said. “I haven’t been able to bring out the consistent understanding of what is needed, the level we need to be on mentally. Do we need to be hyperaggressive today or do we need to be relaxed and chilled? I ask myself, did you do your job properly there?
“If I look back, I would say that maybe I asked too much from the players tactically in one or two games. Not the ones against Seychelles. But Libya at home, we set out with a plan. In the first half it didn’t work. In the second half we changed, and then we have our knife on the throat – we have to get a goal. I thought that the tactical game plan that I gave them, they didn’t understand.”
This is an alarming admission from a coach who has been at the helm of the senior national team for almost two years – in his second spell and having spent four years coaching domestic football in the country, first with Kaizer Chiefs and then with SuperSport United. If the players didn’t understand what he wanted tactically against Libya, how then did he get them to produce that incredible win over Nigeria? And how did the team move from understanding him then, in his first match, to not understanding him now, when they’re more used to each other?
“When you look at the game against Nigeria, it was a game plan based on cutting down space for Nigeria,” Baxter explains. “It was based on opening up space for our quick players and once we got our nose in front, you saw the best of the South African mentality, the bordering on arrogance. Because they embellish a little bit with a touch here and a touch there, and suddenly they’re finding each other with the touches.
“If they’re losing, and I think that’s what happens when they play against the lesser countries, they become anxious because they become conscious of the fact that we aren’t dominating in the way we should. Have we taken the foot off the accelerator a bit? They get anxious, they make mistakes and that increases anxiety. That’s a picture of South African football that we don’t want to see. Players understand certain game plans better than others. I take that. I don’t blame it on the players.”
Baxter’s Bafana have to get the better of Libya without the most capped player of this generation, who is also the No. 1 goalkeeper, the injured Itumeleng Khune. Darren Keet and Ronwen Williams will battle it out for the No. 1 jersey with Wayne Sandilands, who, owing to his form and experience, is likely to be chosen as the third-choice goalkeeper. The problem is that none of these three keepers have covered themselves in glory when they’ve had to fill in for Khune.
“It’s a difficult one for the goalkeepers coming after Itu,” Baxter said. “This happens to every big player. Who goes in after David Beckham? You’ll always be compared to David Beckham [if you replace him]. Who goes in after Itu? You can do okay, but did you do as well as Itu? It’s a difficult one. That heightens the pressure on whoever goes in.
“I want a goalkeeper who is confident that they can go in and do the job. I don’t want someone going in thinking, ‘Oooh, this is a big test for me.’ I want someone who will go in and say, ‘Wow! What an opportunity I got here.’
“The No. 2 is going in to stake a claim. I want someone who wants to stake a claim, and not someone who is going to survive. Confidence is one thing, mental strength is the second requirement and he must be in form [at] that time. Get out there and enjoy the experience rather than be there shivering in your boots, that’s the goalkeeper I am looking for.”
Facing a team with nothing to lose
The good news for Baxter is that Bafana look better now than they did when Libya held them to a goalless draw in Durban in September. Percy Tau has settled in Belgium and his combination with Lebogang Mothiba upfront is looking good. Bongani Zungu and Kamohelo Mokotjo are fit.
The bad news is that this will be a huge mental test against a team that has nothing to lose. Libya have only appeared in Afcon twice, in 1982 and 2006. There wasn’t much expected from them when they were drawn in a group with Nigeria, South Africa and Seychelles.
With not much history to use as a reference point, this current crop of Libyan players is driven by reasons beyond football. They want to bring some joy to a country torn apart by the civil war that led to the overthrowing of former president Muammar Gaddafi.
“There’s no getting away from the fact that whatever action you take, it is preceded by a thought,” Baxter said. “If those thoughts are positive and strong, then you’ve got more chances of it leading to a positive and strong action. We’ve really got to work hard on that. I have to get the message to the players even before we get together, to ensure that they’re positive and believe in themselves, because I know how much this means to the country.”