South Africa travel to Australia and New Zealand for friendly matches next week with an embattled coach and a severely depleted squad.
The two-year contract of Gordon Igesund expires at the end of July and many football commentators predict it will not be renewed. Their views are based on poor showings as hosts of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and 2014 African Nations Championship, and in 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
The championship first-round exit led Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula to brand Bafana Bafana “a bunch of losers” and “useless, unbearable individuals”. Football officials later alleged Igesund had incited the squad to strike for increased bonuses during the Nations Championship, a tournament restricted to home-based players.
There were also claims that the coach was influenced by player agents when selecting teams. A probe led by an advocate cleared Igesund of both charges. It has been a torrid time for the coach with South Africa suffering a record 5-0 defeat when 2014 World Cup hosts and favourites Brazil visited Soweto last March.
Igesund remains confident he will get a new contract and be in charge when Bafana Bafana launch their 2015 Cup of Nations qualifying campaign in Sudan during September. But hopes of success against the World Cup-bound Socceroos on May 26 in Sydney and the All Whites on May 30 in Auckland have not been helped by mass withdrawals.
Half the original 18-strong squad named last month have pulled out due to injuries, forcing Igesund into a last-minute scramble for replacements.
Among the absentees is Kagisho Dikgacoi, the Crystal Palace midfielder and the only South African playing regularly in the English Premier League. Goalkeeper and captain Itumeleng Khune and Kaizer Chiefs team mate, attacking midfielder Bernard Parker, were others who dropped out.
The squad heading for Australasia includes four players based in Europe and 14 who play in the South African Premiership, the richest and best run African national football league.
“All nine withdrawals would have started against Australia,” admitted Igesund, a 57-year-old from Durban who has coached a record four clubs to the Premiership title. “But I am happy with this squad,” he told reporters ahead of a late Thursday departure for Sydney.
“There is nothing I can do about injuries – they are part of football and there is no one to be blamed for this. “I have identified 34 players who form the core of my vision and all the replacements are part of that bigger group. We are going to Australia and New Zealand to compete.”
Those likeliest to trouble Australia and New Zealand include Ajax Amsterdam midfielder Thulani Serero, who played in the 2013-14 Uefa Champions League. He is back in favour after falling out last year with Igesund, who alleged the player feigned injury to miss a World Cup qualifier.
SA’s tour rivals
Themba Zwane has been called up for the first time and former national coach Clive Barker lavishes praise on the midfielder. “He is a among the best footballers I have worked with,” said the 1996 South Africa Cup of Nations-winning coach.
Themba is an exceptional talent, should be a national-squad regular, and I rate him up there with ‘Doctor’ Khumalo and ‘Shoes’ Moshoeu.” Khumalo and Moshoeu were attacking midfielders in the Cup of Nations team that defeated Tunisia 2-0 in Soweto to lift the African trophy. Another threat could be the powerful long-range shooting of midfielder Hlompho Kekana, winner of the Premiership goal-of-the-season competition. South Africa last played their tour rivals in 2009, drawing 2-2 with Australia in London and winning 2-0 at home against New Zealand. – Sapa