Stuart Baxter’s Art of War

Bafana’s coach talks about the art of doing well at Afcon, slams growing racism from spectators in European football and reveals what he’d do if his players walked off in protest.

Stuart Baxter spent Friday 12 April picking the brains of “a great Chinese general” while the other 23 coaches – who, along with him, will lead the 24 teams taking part in the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) – were in Cairo at a venue that overlooked the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza. 

Those mythical structures served as an eye-catching background for the draw of the continental showpiece in which Bafana Bafana takes on Morocco, Ivory Coast and Namibia in Group D. The setting was a show of force and a great marketing strategy for Egypt, whose tourism took a hit after the 2011 revolution that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. 

The revolution, followed by a drop in tourists, coincided with the decline of the Pharaohs. They didn’t qualify for Afcon 2012, 2013 and 2015, having won the tournament in 2006, 2008 and 2010 to take their tally to a record seven titles. Tourist numbers picked up in 2018 owing to stability and improvement in safety in the country. 

A year before that increase, Egypt returned with force in the 2017 Afcon, which they lost in the final at the hands of Cameroon. This tournament is not only about showcasing the strides the country has made since the Arab Spring but also the progress of Egypt’s national team since their dramatic fall from grace. 

For Bafana, this Afcon is about making up for missing the 2017 edition and laying the foundation that should lead to them securing a place in the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. Baxter’s assistant, Molefi Ntseki, travelled to Cairo in place of the homebound Scottish coach, who has been advised not to leave the country while he undergoes treatment for what he terms a “minor illness”. 

The Art of War 

With his wings clipped, Baxter did some reading before the draw of what will be his first Afcon with South Africa. His book choice – The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the bible of warfare strategy and execution – showed the 65-year-old’s thinking. 

“Sun Tzu, a great Chinese general, wrote in the book that battles are usually lost not by the soldiers but because the general didn’t make his battle plan clear,” Baxter said at Safa House in Johannesburg, a day after the Afcon draw. 

“In the fog of war, in a tournament, that sometimes happens. You don’t make your picture clear. It’s really, really important that we’ve got a clear picture of what we want and we’ve got a plan B, that if this happens, this is what we do. If that is clear, and the players are fit, then that’s half the job done. If we can get that right, that would be a very good starting position for us.” 

Baxter stressed the need to prepare well for Afcon. Those preparations will include a mini-camp in the Middle East to get used to the conditions they will experience in Egypt, away from the madness of the tournament and home comforts. Bafana will then fly to Egypt from the Middle East with the aim of playing a friendly against a team that will prepare them well for their opening Afcon match against Ivory Coast’s Elephants on 24 June at Al Salam Stadium in Cairo. 

Bafana are in a tricky group, but Baxter is confident that their games against Morocco, who are among the favourites to win the tournament, and Ivory Coast, who were African champions in 2015, are “winnable”. 

The top two teams in each of the six groups, along with the four best third-placed teams, will advance to the last 16, which means that reaching the quarterfinals should be the minimum target for Bafana. But Baxter wouldn’t be drawn on the team’s minimum requirement. 

Conservative approach 

“My target, and I will be 100% honest, is that South Africa acquit themselves credibly,” Baxter said. “We can make targets and say that I have to make it out of the group, otherwise I am not happy. Well, if we do that, play brilliantly and have a penalty decision against us and then I say I am not happy [that’s not the right thinking]. 

“I will be happy if we acquit ourselves properly and we do the nation proud. If I can get the players to do that, then I know that we will knock a couple of teams over. Setting targets, after we have gone through what we went through, it could be productive in a way but all we would be doing is just putting something out there that’s very loose. We are not committing.”

If Baxter won’t commit to a minimum requirement for the team, what is his personal goal? 

“I want to win it! Of course I do, but I am not going to throw that out so that it looks good on the front pages of the newspapers. ‘Baxter wants to win the Afcon!’ That’s the hope and dream that the coach and 50-odd million South Africans have. Every team that goes there must be going with the ambition of winning it, otherwise don’t go,” Baxter said. 

“But how do we do that? Not by banging our chests and doing what England did [heightening their sense of self-worth], because then you end up suffering by bringing pressure that you cannot handle. So now, let’s go there, keep developing and keep the track that we are on. If we are successful at that, we will knock a couple of teams over and then we become dangerous.”

There are a lot of parallels between the South African and English senior men’s football teams. They both boast leagues that are the benchmark on their continent in terms of financial rewards. They both have one sole title that they’re still talking about, a million years later: England’s 1966 World Cup title and Bafana’s 1996 Afcon. Both sets of fans have two default settings: they either overestimate the chances of their national team and, when they crash and burn, paint them as rubbish, or they call their teams “a bunch of losers”. 

Bafana’s Afcon group was met with mixed emotions. There’s a section of fans who think there’s no hope, while another has gone so far as to say that it’s an easy group. Baxter chose his words carefully when assessing the group. He described Group D as easy on the surface but something that will offer them a great challenge – what this generation needs to grow, he says. 

Balancing pessimism and optimism 

“The environment working here reminds me a lot of England six or seven years ago, where on the one hand we are pessimistic and on the other hand we are highly optimistic. In fact, overly optimistic,” Baxter said. 

“We [England] fell in between and it creates a difficult environment for everybody. You guys [the media] don’t know how you should critique the performance and we think that the performance wasn’t that bad. I don’t think that the Afcon [qualifying] campaign was a bad campaign. I think, in a lot of ways, we made a lot of progress. 

“I got back a year and a bit ago when we failed to qualify for the World Cup. We said that we have to make changes, we have to rejuvenate the squad, bring down the age and make the pool wider. At the same time, we know that we have to qualify for the Afcon. That’s not an easy background, but the fact that they have qualified is a big credit to the boys. If you say that we have done well to qualify, where does that position us? Can we win Afcon? Is this part of the development? I read something where someone said, ‘To hell with Bafana’, during our campaign. 

“You can’t say, ‘To hell with Bafana’, but when we land at Afcon now we should win it. Because on the one hand you’re saying that we are rubbish and on the other hand you are saying that we should win it. If we get all our ducks in a row and we all agree that, okay, this hasn’t been a bad campaign [we can do well]. There are things that we didn’t like about our [qualifying] Afcon campaign and there are those that we liked.” 

Increasing racist attacks 

While Baxter was reading The Art of War, Bongani Zungu’s captain at Amiens, Prince Gouano, was racially abused in the goalless draw with Dijon in the French Ligue 1. The match was halted temporarily in the 78th minute, when Gouano confronted the racist. Zungu, who will likely go with Bafana to Afcon, was among the players who followed their captain. The incident is part of a growing trend in European football where numerous black players are subjected to racism and monkey chants while the authorities do nothing about it. 

“I cannot comprehend a society that condones that sort of thing,” Baxter said. “I am not going to say that it’s a social problem, because I think that it is a football problem. What football does is it polarises and is very clannish. It’s not only racial [the abuse], it’s also homophobic. Your views become very extreme. And in that environment in football, it becomes us against you. 

“Whatever they want to say, comes out. I hate it! This is the human race, the only race I want is the race for the Afcon. I want to talk about that. But when people are this badly behaved, then we have to talk about it. I think that the punishment has to be greater.”

Fifa president Gianni Infantino released a statement after that incident in which he said much but also nothing. Infantino said Fifa stands with all the players who have been racially abused and said that the world governing body “will continue to be at the forefront of the fight against racism and we guarantee to all our member associations that they have our full support in taking up this challenge.”

Harsher punishments would solve racism problem 

This is the same organisation that disbanded their antiracism task force and was once led by a man, Sepp Blatter, who was quoted as saying that racism can be defeated by a shake of hands between the racist and the victim. 

“I am not one of these put them against the wall and flog them [types], I don’t think that helps,” Baxter said. “But I certainly think that if someone does that in the name of Chelsea Football Club, for instance [a handful of Chelsea fans chanted in a video that Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah was a bomber], and if he sees Chelsea having points taken away or playing behind closed doors, it will be a little more self-managed. People around will be like, ‘Hey, you shut up! We had points taken from us.’ The penalties that have been dished out are not great enough and I’ve got no real understanding of the people who do that. I can’t say that this is what they are looking to achieve.”

Gouano asked the referee to stop the match, which he did temporarily. The French defender, in consultation with his Dijon counterpart, then agreed the match should continue but be stopped if another racist attack occurred. 

What would Baxter do if a player or players of his walked off the pitch if subjected to racist abuse?  

“Raheem Sterling said that he would keep playing because in that way he feels that he has won,” Baxter said. “And then I heard another player, who played for me in England, he said that everybody should walk off the field in solidarity. I don’t think that I would take the lead on that, the player would have to tell me what he wants to do. If the majority of my players want to walk off the pitch, I would walk with them.”

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