An innocent slip of the tongue by Stuart Baxter was more revealing of his frustration than any of the words he meant to use when he announced his resignation as Bafana Bafana coach at the Killarney Country Club on Friday 2 August. The 65-year-old’s iPad had “programme” written on his prepared speech, but his brain had other ideas.
“I feel that I cannot continue to work with the required professionalism and passion like I have done, and to deal with the many issues that will be involved with this problem … with this programme,” Baxter corrected himself. “A coach must have confidence that his input will help move forward the project, and at this moment in time, particularly after the experience of Afcon [Africa Cup of Nations], my belief in that process is weakened considerably.”
Baxter looked defeated and worn out in the press conference that lasted for half an hour, but the martial arts enthusiast kept his composure even when he was badgered about his salary after he rubbished a report that alleged he would have pocketed R17 million if the South Africa Football Association (Safa) fired him. Baxter laughed off the demand, flanked by his agent Steve Kapeluschnik and Safa chief executive Russell Paul.
Baxter’s resignation wasn’t surprising even though it comes after South Africa’s best showing at the Afcon on foreign soil since Mali 2002, where Bafana also crashed out in the quarterfinals. It was evident in Egypt that it would take something special for Baxter to continue at the helm of Bafana given his relationships with Safa, some Bafana players, members of his technical team and the media under strain.
Why did he resign?
The first question Baxter was asked after reading his speech was which of the three made him resign – was it pressure from Safa, the supporters or the media that pushed him?
“It would be easy to say that it was a combination,” Baxter said. “Supporters’ pressure, I never feel that because if you do, you shouldn’t be in this job. Media pressure, it’s background noise. It really is. It’s part of the game. You guys have opinions. I don’t expect everybody to agree with my opinions. Respect is an important word for me. At some point you say – at the age you are, the point in your career and at this point in your life – is this what you want to be doing? If it is, then you have to be getting a lot out of it. So really, that plays a part to a degree but it’s not the decisive part. It’s a combination of the situation I was working in.”
Respect, or lack thereof, has been a key theme in Baxter’s coaching stints in the country. His return to the country in 2012 to manage Kaizer Chiefs was fuelled by his desire to earn the respect of South Africans after his failure to guide Bafana to the 2006 Fifa World Cup in Germany. Baxter was so eager to impress that he embellished his CV.
His pursuit to earn respect fell flat on its back with that revelation before he had even settled into his role as Chiefs’ coach. But winning the Absa Premiership in his first season to become the first foreign coach to do so earned him the respect he craved. Two league titles in three seasons solidified that respect, having played some enterprising football along with winning two other trophies – the MTN8 and the Nedbank Cup. He added two more titles, back-to-back Nedbank Cup wins at SuperSport United, which cushioned his return as Bafana coach.
“When I took the job for the first time, from day one people were questioning me and wanting to be confrontational,” Baxter said. “But this time around people knew me because I had won everything you could win in this country at club level. So, then there was a modicum of patience. But that wasn’t the case from some people. It was an affront that I was the national team coach, why was this guy, that guy or that guy not the coach? It doesn’t develop into headbutting, it grows from headbutting to throwing hand grenades. Given that, you have to ask yourself can we succeed in that environment?”
An unholy trinity
Baxter’s tenure as Bafana coach exposed the toxic side of South African football, and none of the parties – from the coach to Safa and the media – are without guilt. Try as he might, Baxter didn’t fully grasp what managing Bafana entailed nor did he negotiate the political minefields that were littered in his path. He read up on the country’s history but didn’t understand the role football played in the fight against apartheid, which led to Bafana being a beacon of hope once South Africa attained freedom. In an interview with The Guardian in Egypt, the Brit said Bafana shouldn’t be expected to give the country hope.
Baxter detonated the minefields with his patronising attitude, which alienated some members of his technical team, whom he constantly second-guessed despite them being there longer than he was. But his dedication can’t be questioned: he added structure and tactical organisation that lacked in Bafana’s appearance in the 2015 Afcon.
“When we played Libya [in the qualifiers], the week that we were due to leave, I was at a doctor and they said that I’ve got cancer,” Baxter said. “They said that you need to have an operation now, and I said you can wait. I have to go to Libya. I cannot send the boys without me. I am their best chance to reach Afcon. It was amazingly difficult for me to concentrate knowing that when I got back, I would have a biopsy that would tell me if I’ve got cancer or not. I put that off. I didn’t do that because I am a hero. I did that because I am a professional. My commitment to the South African cause has been undoubted.”
Baxter’s downfall was that he tripped over his tongue when explaining even reasonable decisions like appointing his son, Lee, to serve as goalkeeper coach after Andre Arendse pulled out because of family issues a day before Bafana went into camp. Instead of revealing that goalkeepers Itumeleng Khune and Ronwen Williams recommended Lee after they were both asked for their opinions on who would be their preferred coach, Baxter went on the offensive and said people questioning his decision don’t know football. His words isolated even some of his backers, and gave his detractors plenty of ammunition.
Protracted search by Safa
Baxter wasn’t a popular choice when he was announced as Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba’s replacement after Safa had told the country that the next Bafana coach would be either two-time Afcon winner Herve Renard, Carlos Queiroz or Hugo Broos, whose depleted Cameroon won the 2017 Afcon. Negotiations with these three coaches fell through, forcing the organisation to settle on Baxter who didn’t have experience in continental football.
His detractors, who still held a grudge from his first spell as Bafana coach, couldn’t accept him and some of the criticism he faced from the media was personal. The man, not his ideals and philosophy, was constantly attacked.
It didn’t help Baxter that he started his tenure during the tense fight for the Safa presidency between Danny Jordaan and Ace Ncobo. Some of his wishes and recommendations were pushed aside with the elections taking centre stage. He found himself between a rock and a hard place with no support from Safa and constantly having to prove he is the right man for Bafana. But even when the elections passed, some of his requests to strengthen his technical team were not met.
“I think that we need someone with a clean bill of health, so to say, and can just be optimistic and positive to do the job,” Baxter said. “It has been an honour to have worked with the South African national team. I don’t think that anybody could have done more than I have done. I have been to Europe to scout our young players, I have done workshops with the coaches, I have done work on the field with the ladies team, the kids and I have been at club visits all over the country, visiting the coaches and trying to get everyone on board.
“I have even showed you guys [the media], I hope, respect when I felt that was reciprocal. If South Africa gets on the same page, Vision 2022 has a massive chance of being a success. We do have resources but, and I say this again, we are not there yet because tactically, technically, socially and mentally we all have to be on the same page. If we do, I expect to see South Africa at that World Cup [in Qatar, in 2022].”
Baxter’s other downfall was that every failure was everyone’s fault but his. He rarely took blame for Bafana’s shortcomings. Despite an uninspiring performance in the group stage of the Afcon, without fail after every match he talked about how well Bafana played. The team only started playing well in the knockout stage, a space that Baxter is comfortable in thanks to his impressive record in cup competitions.
The way forward
A lot needs to change for Baxter’s replacement to succeed. Firstly Safa needs to get its house in order and the media needs to play its part. The media have to hold Safa and the coach accountable, but shouldn’t be swayed by petty politics as has been the case with Pitso Mosimane, Mashaba and Baxter.
Safa started the search for the next Bafana coach a day after Baxter’s resignation. The country’s football governing body announced that the technical committee had appointed Molefi Ntseki as interim coach with plans of filling the vacancy by the end of the month should negotiations go their way.
That man will not be Mosimane as the Mamelodi Sundowns coach made it clear on Saturday that he isn’t interested in the job. “I had an unbelievable experience when I was Bafana coach, it has helped me to be where I am today,” Mosimane said.
“I must be thankful to Safa for that, to be honest. I even had time to educate myself because there’s no game every week. It was brilliant. Somebody must learn and benefit from that like I did. If I have to help to find the coach, I will because we should collectively help.”
Safa are reported to be looking for a local coach to replace Baxter. Gavin Hunt, Benni McCarthy and Steve Komphela have been mentioned among those that the technical committee is considering.
“Stuart gave you his reasons for leaving,” Mosimane said. “It’s a difficult one. Everybody has their own challenges. Stuart was there. Carlos Queiroz was there. He couldn’t solve this thing and he ended up as coach of Real Madrid after Bafana. It’s unbelievable. He won trophies with Manchester United. [Carlos] Parreira was here after he won the World Cup. It’s a difficult job that one. Maybe we have to go on a flight if we don’t find a local. Or maybe we should follow what Algeria and Senegal did, they stayed with their own coaches and they are patient.
“Gavin has been asking for a chance and I think that we should also give him a chance. We were there and we couldn’t do what the country needed. Let me give Gav a chance. Benni has a good name. He is like [Senegal coach] Aliou Cisse and the coach of Algeria [Djamel Belmadi]. He played football in Europe. He is a big name in the country. I don’t know if he wants it. But if you appoint Benni, put the right people around him to help him. He has the pedigree for players to respect, to say, ‘Who are you talking to? I have done it, here at Bafana and my record is there [as the all-time top goalscorer].’ I like that. But support him with the right people, but be patient South Africa.”