Mashaba is back – and he's just as defensive as ever about his push for patriotism over self-publicity.
There is little indication of how the new-look Bafana Bafana will fare tonight – September 5 – at the start of a fresh chapter of an increasingly tormented tale, but there can be no doubt about one thing: the coming journey with Ephraim Mashaba at the helm will be something of a rollercoaster ride.
That much has been evident in his public performances already, betraying his irritation at a general lack of conviction about his appointment but, at the same time, sowing further uncertainty about whether he is capable in the modern game.
This week Mashaba had a full go at reporters who had dared to suggest he was a “cheap option” for the cash-strapped South African Football Association, whose president Danny Jordaan had initially been talking about hiring a top Dutch coach or taking on the Italian Giovanni Trapattoni to replace Gordon Igesund.
He has taken it as a personal slight but expressed determination to prove the critics wrong, suggesting he might even “hug them one day for making me stronger”.
This prickly part of his personality betrays the hurt he feels at having his credentials questioned and the only real way to answer will be with results, starting with the opening African Nations Cup qualifier against Sudan in Khartoum, followed by Wednesday’s hosting of Nigeria in Cape Town.
Mashaba does have the best record of any past Bafana coach and it is ironic that South Africa have not been able to better the ranking of 36 they enjoyed in the month he was fired from his previous stint as national team coach, just over a decade ago.
Then, he was dismissed in a row over selection as he refused to pick members of the foreign-based legion he believed had not shown the requisite willingness to play for the national team. Not much has changed over the past 10 years, it seems: Mashaba banged on again about patriotism and dedication at the expense of more detail on how he intends to engineer a much-needed turnabout in Bafana’s fortunes.
The omission of Thulani Serero is a pointed example of how dangerous this selection criteria can be. Mashaba did not pick the Ajax Amsterdam midfielder, sending a message that no player must believe he has a guaranteed berth in the team, no matter his profile or his overseas form.
Serero should be the midfield general in the side but Mashaba’s explanation sought to brush aside queries: “We have got to be careful [about making presumptions]. We can’t be duplicating players in one position. If I pick Serero, must [Andile] Jali be there? It could be tactics that we are looking at. I don’t want to go deep into that.”
Serero got on the wrong side of previous coach Igesund, who believed the 23-year-old was arrogant and self-serving. It all seemed repaired when Serero went on tour with Bafana to Australia and New Zealand in May, but he is now out again as Mashaba seeks to send him a message about being a team player. Hardly the motivation methods of a modern manager.
But then there is an old-fashioned outlook about the new Bafana boss’s views on the game in an era when the finer details are more and more the dividing line between victory and defeat.
South Africa had a chance to scout Sudan over the weekend when they played a friendly in Lusaka, but Mashaba pooh-poohed the idea of going to spy on them and learn about the opponent. “You find they will change the system,” he said.
He picked Ayanda Patosi without knowing the player had just been for knee surgery. He has only played a handful of minutes so far this season.
“I can’t call all the coaches of my players and ask about their injures because then I’d have 25 players injured for every game.”
David Zulu of Chippa United was picked, he explained, because he was the top scorer in the national first division last season and therefore must have a nose for goal.
But on finding a solution to Bafana’s goal-scoring woes, he said: “If the two coaches [before] had problems, it is still going to be a problem now.”
Mashaba’s charisma with the players is key. He will give them licence to play and attack and will organise the defence. Maybe an approach without too much clutter is just what they need.
Sudan are no footballing fortress although they have improved immeasurably over the past decade – both at national team and club levels. But often they have buckled at home and Bafana are capable of securing a result in the heat and hostility of the suburb of Omdurman, across the River Nile from Khartoum’s city centre.
The key test, however, for Mashaba’s motley collection comes next Wednesday in Cape Town against Nigeria where he would have been much better served by keeping more experienced players in the squad.