No culture shock for Baxter
"I have to change in South Africa," said Kaizer Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter. "Here you can't be as punishing in your criticism of players as you can be in Japan, for instance. You can't transport one way of thinking wherever you go in the world."
Not that punishing criticism is an alien practice in the trenches of the Premier Soccer League, as Baxter discovered in May when he was called out by football writer Jonty Mark for indulging in a spot of poetic licence during a discussion of his CV in an interview. Chiefs stood by him, which was just as well, given that team manager Bobby Motaung now stands accused of rather more serious excursions from the truth.
Out on the pitch, Baxter's "good cop" style is already convincing many jurors. Six of his players had been called up by Gordon Igesund for September 7's Bafana friendly against Brazil. It is early days – and the injury to Morgan Gould will hurt – but Amakhosi are joint league leaders and striker Bernard Parker has thrived in partnership with Kingston Nkatha.
With both Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates in poor form, there is a buzz at Naturena.
Baxter attributes Parker's form to a positional shift (to a deeper role) as well as a mental one. "Now he doesn't have to play with his back to goal as much as he did and therefore can challenge players with his skill. It's good for his confidence, because he's not getting kicked from behind as much as he was. If you lose the ball often, your confidence drops. The angles he is playing suit him better – his decision-making is more adventurous. He has tended to worry too much about his game," he said.
"Sometimes he's got a problem being Bernard Parker. When he was at FC Twente, I imagine he realised he was not playing to his potential and that worried him. He's conscientious and a very nice kid. Sometimes I don't know whether to praise Bernard or adopt him. I tell him mistakes are information about how you can do the job better."
As Baxter crossed the Naturena campus to have lunch at the canteen with his teenage son in tow, he exchanged polite, warm greetings with every player who passed. The World Wrestling Federation-style moustache could not camouflage a gentle presence, far from the volatility of Vladimir Vermezovic, although Baxter was not too polite to take a pop at the Serb's legacy.
"People accused my predecessor of suffocating the players," he said. "I cannot understand that – applying tactical constraints that you would use in Europe and showing no regard for how they prefer to learn here. They will feel they have to always remember everything the coach has told them and lose their spontaneity. That balance is the challenge.
"If I told a squad of Swedish or Japanese players 'show me some skill and imagination!' they would be completely confused and ask: 'Well, what's my role?' They would be insecure, which is exactly what African players feel when you impose overpowering tactical constraints. It is a minefield and you have to keep that in mind, or else you tread on mines left, right and centre."
Baxter's riff on contrasting football cultures veers into some fairly leaky stereotypes, which happen to be as prevalent here as they are in Europe. "African players are not like the logical-thinking Swedes, who have problems being creative, by the way. They are not like the Japanese with their work ethic and discipline. We should probably take on board some social and mental skills that players have in those countries. But, equally, those countries look enviously at the quick, highly technical things we do in Africa.
"Everywhere you go to coach football, the first thing you confront is culture," said Baxter. "In Africa, players are brought up in chaotic circumstances and have to find their own way through those. So they become very good at solving little problems and it is the same on the football field. They don't accept organisation easily, because their normal life is not well organised," Baxter said.
"Whereas in Sweden, normal life is completely organised and if I stood on a pitch and talked about defensive lines on a cold, windy night, 15 degrees below zero, I could do so for 20 minutes and they wouldn't react."
Baxter has half a point – but easy shibboleths about the natural-born creativity of African or South African footballers can serve to prevent the systematic teaching of creative skills. The ability to deliver a tidy through ball is not a happy fluke of genetic or socioeconomic fate. It is a learnable craft, which too many of our youngsters are not learning. If anything, the Premier Soccer League is now perilously short of imagination, with mounting financial incentives and threats producing a frenetic, attritional style. The weakness of the "innate African flair" theory is illustrated by the fact that Igesund would kill for a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or a Shinji Kagawa.
Baxter must make do with Siyabonga Nkosi and, to be fair, the playmaker's early form threatens to silence many doubters. "He's difficult to design a role for, because he falls between a typical No 10 and a box-to-box midfielder. But he can see a pass before he has played it and that's one of the best qualities in any player."
He stands by his squad's lack of an old-school defensive midfielder. "I have to put all my good, influential players on the pitch at the same time. And someone like Andrea Pirlo can't defend better than Yeye Letsholonyane. Pirlo is a more extreme passer, with a wider range, but Yeye is a better defender than people give him credit for and he's good enough on the ball," Baxter said.
"South African players have undoubted strengths and talents. We concentrated for a long time on entertainment and complained when we didn't get success on the field. It was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. All I'm trying to do now is file off some of those square edges so it will fit into that round hole."
This gig is a great chance for Baxter, whose career stuttered after his last contract was an unsuccessful tenure with the Finland national side. His greatest triumph – a Swedish league and cup double with AIK Stockholm – came back in 1998.
Baxter can reasonably assume that he has two seasons – the traditional minimum term of office at Naturena – in which to bag the long-lost league title. But there is no time to dither. There are seven round holes in the Chiefs trophy cabinet.