Stuart Baxter’s tongue is seasoned with diplomacy, a spice he uses to make some harsh truths and outlandish remarks more palatable.
The England-born Scotsman lacked this skill in his first stint as Bafana Bafana coach 14 years ago. He also didn’t understand the political dynamics of South African football. Add his failure to guide Bafana to the 2006 Fifa World Cup and you have all the ingredients for disaster.
This is why he quit in a huff just 20 months into the job, arguing he didn’t want to mislead people into thinking that we can produce a world-class team because he believes, in his “heart of hearts”, that if we don’t get certain things right, we won’t be able to.
He was more diplomatic when he took charge of Kaizer Chiefs on his return to the country in 2012, amid reports that he exaggerated certain accomplishments on his CV. He ignored the noise and guided the Glamour Boys to two league titles in three seasons, including the league-Cup double in his first season.
He did all this while navigating his way through the minefield that goes with the biggest club coaching job in South Africa.
Baxter’s stints at Chiefs, then at SuperSport United, and the successes he achieved, improved his battered image in South Africa after his failure to take Bafana to Germany in 2006.
A somewhat improved reputation due to his club achievements aside, Baxter is still on shaky grounds with fans of the national team after failing to take Bafana to the Fifa World Cup in Russia earlier this year.
I’d love to say that the driving force is that I want success on the continent, but it’s not really true.
One might view his biggest stumbling block as his lack of success on the continent. After his failure to make a mark with Amakhosi in the CAF Champions League, Baxter hinted that sending a watered-down squad to compete in the biggest club competition in Africa was a decision made by the club’s management, and not him alone, as the tournament put strain on the club’s finances.
He fared better with SuperSport United, taking them to the group stage of the CAF Confederation Cup for the first time in the club’s history. But the squad he fielded there didn’t inspire much confidence. His use of mainly fringe players fuelled the notion that he doesn’t like competing on the continent; and at worst, that he looks down on African football.
“I’d love to say that the driving force is that I want success on the continent, but it’s not really true. The driving force for me is to develop the game with South Africa,” Baxter told New Frame at Safa House in Nasrec, Johannesburg, after naming the 22-man squad that will face Libya in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations [Afcon] qualifier at Moses Mabhida Stadium tomorrow.
“The driving force is to develop a team that will do well on the continent. Personally, I don’t feel that I need to prove anything in that respect. I’ve been successful in every other avenue that I have taken on. Even if I was to qualify for the Afcon, I don’t feel that personally would give me more kudos than before.
“Qualifying for the Afcon, the greatest satisfaction for me will be knowing that the South African public gets to take part in the finals of a major tournament. I know how much that means to them. This has very little to do with my personal ambitions and feelings.
“This has much, much more to do with the national game and the national pride. I know and understand the question [of how big of a drive is it for me to do well in the continent after my previous failures], but I honestly and genuinely don’t do any of this because I want to prove anyone wrong,” says the Bafana coach.
Lack of continental experience
Baxter’s lack of showing on the continent means he didn’t quite tick all the boxes on the list of requirements the SA Football Association [Safa] wanted to effectively replace Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba.
Safa settled on Baxter as their main targets, Carlos Queiroz and Herve Renard, proved expensive, while Belgian Hugo Broos’ agent put them off. But it seems the very thing that aided Baxter to land the Bafana job, Safa’s financial constraints, have inadvertently served to hinder him in appointing his support staff – a year after he was named as coach.
We’ve got to release the temptation to constantly keep changing. We must persist with a programme where we have a strategy.
This impasse, and Baxter’s failure to take Bafana to Russia, has put a strain on his relationship with his bosses, which means that failure to qualify for the Afcon will result in his sacking.
Amakhosi almost “rescued” the situation in their failed courtship of Baxter. That courtship went beyond just sizing each other up, even though Baxter denies taking it seriously, which means that he has thought of an exit strategy. This puts his relationship with Safa on shaky ground as any serious conflict could bring it to an end.
But the challenge ahead excites Baxter, and Safa needs to realise that firing the coach will not solve Bafana’s problems.
“We’ve got to release the temptation to constantly keep changing. We must persist with a programme where we have a strategy,” says Baxter.
“It’s easier to have a programme and a strategy than to have to defend individual decisions. We have to really persist in looking for new angles and not just hope to see angels. That’s the way we have to work.
“I go into the job with a background of having worked in international football, knowing club football in South Africa, and having some sort of idea on how to implement our vision. If it becomes brutally honest that I can’t do that, for whatever reason, if it’s because of the structures in the country or my own inadequacy, it doesn’t matter, then I will stop, walk away and hand over to someone who is better placed to do that. No one will have to sack me.”
We have to do some work and get together. I’ll do what I can do, with or without international success on the continent.
He adds: “If people understand that quick fixes don’t work [we have tried it for so long and it hasn’t worked], then things will improve. Give this a little bit of time. I am brutally aware that time isn’t the friend of a coach in the modern game.
“People want instant fixes, so along the way there’s got to be enough encouragement that we’re on the right path. When we all understand that we aren’t on the right path, then I won’t be around and you guys will be looking for another candidate. I think that this is the right way.
“The small signs and the small shoots that we see growing, we have to stick with them for some time and make sure to resist the temptation of hoping for a new tomorrow, tomorrow. It’s got to be in a month’s time at least [or further down].
We have to do some work and get together. I’ll do what I can do, with or without international success on the continent.”