/ 9 June 2009

Joel Santana, Bafana’s Brazilian touch

Joel Santana’s arrival was shrouded in mistrust, but a year later his face is as famous among South Africans as that of his predecessor Carlos Alberto Parreira.

Now, however, Santana — the “Brazilian touch” of Bafana Bafana — stands before the real challenge. He became South Africa’s national coach in May 2008, upon a recommendation from Parreira when he resigned to return to Brazil to be close to his family.

Santana did not inherit an easy task. He had to build a competitive side for the first-ever African host nation of a World Cup. Never before has an African side won a World Cup, or even reached a semi-final in the sport’s main event. Between 1966 and 1990, South Africa were banned from competing due to Apartheid and when they subsequently qualified for two finals, in 1998 and 2002, they never got past the first round.

Their win in the 1996 African Nations Cup now lies in the remote past, and the fact that they did not qualify for the upcoming continental tournament in Angola 2010 was hardly the best possible landing for Santana.

“The project started two years ago and we are pursuing it gradually. As if it were a pyramid,” he told the German Press Agency dpa. “We started at the first stage, which is player selection. And now we are starting to make a team.”

The Confederations Cup — in which South Africa share a first-round group with Spain, Iraq and New Zealand — is set to show where their real level lies. After Santana’s arrival, Bafana have improved their performances and their results, which is what fans really want.

“I was not picked because I am a friend of Parreira’s. I was picked because I was the right person to succeed him. And that gives me greater responsibility — not just because of the competition from Parreira but because I do not want to let him down. He put all his confidence in me. He told me, ‘Take this, look after it for me’,” the coach said.

Parreira, who has known Santana for over 30 years, remains linked to a project that he himself launched. “We talk every week,” the South Africa coach noted. Santana does not have the international experience of his mentor, who led Brazil to the World Cup title in 1994.

Almost unknown outside Brazil, “Papa” Joel has a great reputation at home, where he is the only coach who has won the Rio de Janeiro state championship with the four biggest clubs: Vasco da Gama, Fluminense, Flamengo and Botafogo.

At 60, Santana now lies before his greatest professional challenge.

“Coaching a national team is a high-responsibility position anywhere in the world. It’s like being a head of state,” he said.

The dreams of South Africa — a country which was for decades associated with the nightmare of Apartheid — are in his hands and in those of a handful of players he pampers as if they were his children. Indeed, his own family stayed in Brazil. Santana lives alone in Sandton, an elegant neighbourhood of Johannesburg, in the same apartment where Parreira used to live. His assistant, Jairo Leal, the man who conveys instructions to the players in English, lives in the same compound as his boss.

Every time they go out for a meal, people come up to give them encouragement. After the criticism of the first few months, the coaching team is now enjoying some good times. However, Santana belongs to Parreira’s school and knows that in football things can change quickly.

Winning is what really counts, and that means hard work. That is why the coach took with him to the locker room — for all his players to see — a workman’s helmet, which he was presented with when he visited construction workers at the Soccer City stadium. Santana, and his players, know that they have to work hand in hand with the rest of an excited country. — dpa.