Shakes Mashaba was quick to deny he had been strong-armed into picking players he had previously discarded when a surprise return to the Bafana Bafana squad for a quartet of foreign-based players was announced for internationals next week.
But his protestations had a hollow tone and were, indeed, disingenuous as Thulani Serero, Ayanda Patosi, Kamohelo Mokotjo and May Mahlangu were named in the South African national squad to play in Swaziland next Wednesday and at home to Nigeria in Nelspruit on Sunday, March 29.
Serero, the Ajax Amsterdam midfielder recently linked with a move to AC Milan, was infamously left out of the African Nations Cup earlier this year because Mashaba believed he was not committed enough. Mahlangu was formally suspended by the South African Football Association (Safa) – a first for any local footballer – when he asked to be excused from a call-up last year to be allowed time to recover from injury.
Also back is Patosi, shortlisted for the tournament in Equatorial Guinea in January but left out, and Mokotjo, the driving defensive midfielder from Twente Enschede whom Mashaba accused of being out of shape at the same time as he was topping the list of best performing players in the Dutch league.
Mashaba got away with dumping them all last year at a time when he could do little wrong because South Africa had eliminated holders Nigeria from the Nations Cup qualifiers. But after being exposed for a paucity of tactical awareness and planning in Equatorial Guinea, where Bafana failed to win a game, Mashaba is a man on the back foot who now has a more muted message.
All four European-based players were contacted last week by team manager Barney Kujane seeking to set up one-on-one meetings between them and Safa president Danny Jordaan with the purpose of finding out whether they would be willing to play for the national team.
There was no contact between players and coach and any sense of rapprochement comes instead from Mashaba’s bosses, not the coach himself.
After predicting success at the Nations Cup finals but then falling flat, Mashaba is now a man on the defensive and aware his tenure depends on some flexibility.
It means having to manage those players he previously rejected for being “too big for their boots”. Now Mashaba needs to actually solve any alleged disciplinary problems – as most coaches have to do with talented but temperamental players.
The criterion of slavish devotion to the coach and his cause has worn thin and there is now a cry for a better coaching environment. Horror stories continue to emerge from free-talking players about the poverty of the tactics and preparation at the Nations Cup finals in January.
South Africa did not have any video analyst available nor paid any heed to the strengths and weakness of their three group opponents – Algeria, Ghana and Senegal. Players say they got no briefing on who or what to watch out for; there was little or no work on set pieces, both taking them or defending them. There was not even a whiteboard or flip chart in the change room to discuss tactics. Water bottles on the dressing room floor had to suffice to illustrate points.
Jordaan has talked about enlisting help for Mashaba on the bench in future but the idea of appointing an overseer will not sit well and is impractical. You either have faith in your coach or you don’t.
Safa are looking for a technical director to take overall charge of the national teams and playing philosophy but seem to have made little headway in identifying their man.
It means the chances of the national team not fulfilling their true potential will continue into a busy year in which the qualifiers for the next Nations Cup in 2017 start and the 2018 World Cup preliminaries get under way.
Mashaba might have conceded to having Serero and company back but he has continued with eccentric selections – notably that of the National First Division’s Siphelele Ntshangase.
The Black Leopards striker has been scoring in the league but that is not necessarily a reason for Bafana selection, as David Zulu has already proved. Unfortunately it is symptomatic of the poverty of decent South African strikers that the coach feels compelled to choose a player who has not kicked a ball in the top flight. It is also a touch of his own maverick nature that Safa have not yet fully reigned in.