/ 9 October 2009

Red card looms for Santana

Safa boss Kirsten Nematandani may only be days into his new job but he is working fast.

While Bafana coach Joel Santana waited with his team for the flight to Norway on Tuesday, Safa were busy passing a resolution, ironically at OR Tambo, that would in all likelihood bring the Brazilian’s 17-month reign as head coach to an end. The new Safa leadership put in place a three-man committee ‘to monitor Santana’s team and then report to the Safa executive”, the Star reported on Wednesday. The committee consists of Supersport mentor Gavin Hunt and former national team coaches Clive Barker and Jomo Sono. That Santana’s fate rests with these men who are among his fiercest critics puts his predicament in perspective. Openly scathing in their attacks on his conduct, they believe he has no respect for the local team.

How the Brazilian reacts to the news of being assessed by the trio seems to be the least of Nematandani’s problems. When asked on Tuesday whether the 60-year-old coach knew about the latest developments, the Safa boss told media: ‘No, he has not been told.” In football circles employing three peers to pass judgement on any self-respecting professional usually results in immediate resignation.

If the embattled Brazilian does not jump ship on his return from Scandinavia next week, the evidence suggests it will not be long before he is pushed from his R1,4-million-a-month job. In their campaign for the Safa presidency, the Football Transformation Forum (FTF) said they would fire Santana should any of their candidates win the hot seat. Nematandani, an FTF member, appears ready to pull the trigger, an act that would win him more friends than enemies in football circles. It would also go a long way in convincing the nation that he has what it takes to lead the country’s most supported sport, despite having arrived at the position by the back door.

The calls for Santana to be relieved of his duties have been deafening for a long time but went unheard at Safa House. And when Bafana failed to qualify for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations, Safa CEO Raymond Hack even called it a blessing in disguise. Maybe the former administration were cushioning blame for employing a coach whose only experience aside from leading Brazilian clubs consisted of stints with clubs in the United Arab Emirates, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Pressed for time with the World Cup only eight months away, Nematandani is keen to arrest the freefall of the team. ‘We want to make sure that we have a competitive team to play in the World Cup next June,” he said last week at the press conference called to announce the team for Norway and Iceland.

He did not mince words about his expectations when he told the Bafana Bafana head coach that his administration would not accept anything less than a victory in the two-match tour.

The drastic actions are understandable.

Nematandani has inherited a Bafana side languishing at number 73 on the Fifa World rankings after losing six games on the trot. An unconvincing 1-0 win over lightweights Madagascar may have ended the downward spiral three weeks ago. Still, it left more questions than answers about the team’s readiness to take on the best football-playing nations at the 2010 World Cup.

Santana’s first battle to save his job begins on Saturday with a tough assignment against 43rd-ranked Norway, and is followed on Tuesday when he leads his charges against lowly Iceland, placed 96 in the world. The fact that Santana beat Norway 2-1 in the Mandela Challenge trophy early this year when he handed the country its first triumph over European opposition in seven years would have been inspiring on another day. Not this time; the goals seem to have been shifted with the addition of Sono, Barker and Hunt.

Suddenly, surviving the freezing temperatures of Oslo and Iceland no longer guarantees Santana a ticket to the world finals. A report from his critics, which is unlikely to be complimentary whatever happens on this trip, will be a key factor in whether he keeps his job or not — if he fails to do the honourable thing on his return.

The only dilemma a Santana exit presents to Safa is time. There are eight months before the World Cup kicks off and a lot of thought would have to go into choosing the correct candidate to oversee what would be a crash programme.

Santana’s counterpart and the man partly responsible for his appointment, Carlos Alberto Parreira, is the obvious choice. Talking him into accepting the nearly insurmountable task of turning Bafana Bafana into a competitive unit at the eleventh hour is the most feasible option.

Plan B would be to look at the local options. Sadly, the leading candidates, Barker and Sono, are seriously compromised. Their involvement in the committee that is set to report to Safa about the team’s performance under Santana might be viewed as driven by their own interests.

Be whatever may, Safa must count their losses in the expensive Santana experiment.

Nematandani must follow through on his brave intervention and reshuffle the Bafana technical bench — that much cannot be put off
much longer.