Santana's honeymoon over

The gloves are off and the honeymoon is over for Bafana Bafana head coach Joel Santana.

The Brazilian has the toughest job in Africa trying to build the right combination for the Confederations Cup in June and to produce a competitive side to play at the 2010 World Cup finals on home soil.

It will be a make-or-break six months and when the Confederations Cup ends in June, Santana will either be a hero or on his way back to Brazil.

Nothing less than reaching the semifinals of the competition, which is the dress rehearsal for the 2010 World Cup, will be good enough.

With Bafana in the easier Group A with Spain, Iraq and New Zealand, the expectation of the nation is high. Failure to advance from that group is not an option for the Bafana head coach.

It begins on Thursday when he names his squad of Premier Soccer League (PSL) players to take on Zambia in a friendly practice match at the Super Stadium on January 27.

Bad start
Santana has come under fire since he took charge last June when his countryman, Carlos Alberto Parreira, jumped ship and decided to go home to look after his sick wife.

Santana failed to qualify for the 2010 African Nations Cup finals and despite all the spin-doctoring from the South African Football Association (Safa), it was a disaster that the World Cup hosts will not be able to test their strengths against the best in Africa in Angola in 12 months’ time.

But there have been positive signs. Santana appears to have turned a corner when he led the national side to four straight wins at the end of the year against Equatorial Guinea, Malawi, Ghana and ending 2008 with a magic 3-2 win over Cameroon in Rustenburg.

Santana has two remaining camps for local PSL players to run the rule over.

After Zambia a full-strength Bafana squad, which will include all the European players, meet Chile in Polokwane on February 11.

That is followed by the final mini-camp for local players on February 16. A squad of PSL players will get their final chance to impress Santana against another Southern African country on February 17.

Said Safa spokesperson Morio Sanyane: “We are still finalising an opponent and venue for February 17. It is the final chance for the coach and his technical team to have a good look at what sort of depth and talent that is emerging from the PSL.”

Sanyane said the players are rallying behind their coach. “The spirit that Santana is building is sky high. Just look at the way the players responded against Cameroon. Santana knows he needs to keep that momentum going.

“But from our side we have a pledge from every player that they will play with pride and passion. We are confident of doing well this year and that the coach is on the right track. But it is up to him to select the right combinations.”

The core of the PSL squad Santana will name on Thursday will revolve around Kaizer Chiefs keeper Itumeleng Khune; teammate Siphiwe Tshabalala; Mamelodi Sundowns defender Robyn Johannes and teammate Surprise Moriri; Orlando Pirates midfield magician Teko Modise—who scored twice against Cameroon; Moroka Swallows hard-working midfielder Lefa Tsutsulupa; SuperSport United defender Bongani Khumalo and the midfield iron man of Golden Arrows, Kagisho Dikgacoi.

But Santana needs to reward players such as Ajax Cape Town striker Mabhuti Khenyeza, star winger Franklyn Cale and two outstanding Ajax defenders, Brett Evans and Nazeer Allie.

Santana, who hopefully has been running the rule over local players during this month, will have noticed Free State Stars striker Sthembiso Ngcobo; the outstanding form of new Kaizer Chiefs striker Abia Nale; Pirates recruit Katlego Mashego, who is back at his best; plus Bucs defender Lucas Thwala.

Two players who could miss out due to lack of action are skilful Sundowns midfielder Lerato Chabangu, who is on his way to SuperSport in July; and striker Diyo Sibisi, who this week joined Downs from Free State Stars.—Sapa

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