/ 3 April 1998

The Doctor is in

Andrew Muchineripi : Soccer

It has been the worst of times and the best of times for Doctor Khumalo, the Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana Bafana icon, who comes closer to walking on water than any other South African soccer star.

Just how popular Doctor is was driven home with a forceful bang at FNB Stadium last weekend when he unwittingly became a prime candidate for the miss-of-the-season award.

A cross eluded several Orlando Pirates defenders and fell to the feet of Marc Batchelor, who speedily destroyed the myth that he is nothing more than a throwback to the days of the battering-ram English centre-forward.

Batchelor played a short pass of such delicacy that one was tempted to race across the pitch and wrap the ball in cotton wool. It created a huge gap in the Buccaneers defence and left unmarked Khumalo poised to equalise.

Ahead of the Doctor lay helpless Nigerian goalkeeper William Okpara and it seemed only a matter of seconds before the ball was nestling in the net and Amakhosi supporters would erupt.

Under normal circumstances Khumalo would have made a split decision, scored the goal and restored equality in another chapter of the greatest soccer rivalry south of the Limpopo.

Instead, Doctor had time, too much time. Time to consider options. Should he belt the the round object manufactured from the bladder of a pig into the net or sidefoot it wide of Okpara?

The midfielder, who specialises in long, defence-splitting passes, took his cue from Batchelor and opted for a delicate chip over Okpara. He experienced little difficulty lifting the ball above the keeper, but it also cleared the crossbar.

It is now history book material that the miss proved terribly expensive as Chiefs lost 1-0 and have now gone two seasons and seven matches without beating the Buccaneers.

Chiefs supporters are known as peace-loving people, but clearly the lesson was lost on some so-called fans when the final whistle blew and bottles and a variety of other objects dropped on to the pitch.

Neutrals would have presumed that the target was Doctor. Not a chance! Instead it was Yugoslav coach Paul Dolezar and national goalkeeper Brian Baloyi who bore the brunt of the attack. What a strange soccer kingdom we inhabit! Khumalo misses when scoring seems relatively simple and the goalkeeper takes the blame. Put it down to the aura that surrounds the Doctor.

Khumalo was dropped from the new-look African Nations Cup squad that finished second behind Egypt in Burkina Faso two months ago under the guidance of caretaker coach Jomo Sono.

The Black Prince never gave reasons for the decision, but poor work rate, a tendency to drift out of a match for long periods and a reluctance to tackle may have been contributing factors.

Those who adore the Doctor say one of his trademark passes is worth 20 minutes of hustle and bustle from technically inferior players and how dare Bafana Bafana consider going to France without him.

His detractors point to the modern midfielder, an all-round footballer who tackles like Innocent Buthelezi (without showing the studs) and harasses like John Moeti, besides doing what Doctor does so well.

Those who thought the miss might mean Doctor missing out were proved wrong when Khumalo was included in a 26-strong squad of local players for two training sessions this month.

Plans are also at an advanced stage for 20 South Africans scattered around Europe to assemble in London during April, giving coach Philippe Troussier a pool of about 45 players from which to choose the 22 for France.

It has also been announced that South Africa will host Zambia at FNB Stadium on May 20 and leave the following day for Buenos Aires where they will face twice world champions Argentina on May 25.

From South America, the team travels to the German city of Stuttgart and a possible warm-up match against Mexico or Slovakia on June 6 before the final touches are applied in the French town of Vichy.

It is far too soon to speculate on who may and may not be there except that informed sources assure this scribe that one Doctor Khumalo will be in France come June – and not as a tourist either.