The Tao of the touchline

Who knows what Allister Coetzee has been telling the Boks in his team talks this week. But he could do worse than sing them the chorus of the John Legend ballad, Ordinary People.

“We’re just ordinary people/ We don’t know which way to go/ We’re just ordinary people/ Maybe we should take it sloooow.”

If he were to croon those tender lyrics to his charges (ideally with lots of vibrato), it goes without saying that they should not take the advice literally. Against Wales, the Boks must take it physically fast but philosophically slow. Because in these moments of South African sporting hysteria, when armies of slack-bellied armchair experts are howling and shaking their fists like so many man-sized toddlers, a national squad can easily lose sight of their fallible and irreducible humanity.

The athletes in question, be they Boks or Bafana or Proteas, can instead start to feel like scandalously defective consumer products: like a consignment of glitchy robots, or a recalled batch of spontaneously combusting sex toys.

To borrow the words of our dear president this week, spoken in reference to some annoyingly rule-bound banks, the players stand accused of “putting our national image into some problems”. As though the fact of the Boks’ loss to Italy is of any consequence to anyone except some South Africans and some Italians.

But the craziest judginess is reserved for the coaches. This week, Coetzee has found himself compared with Proteas coach Russell Domingo, whose stock is soaring on the mint-flavoured majesty of his side’s victories Down Under. Such comparisons are generally odious – but not quite as odious as the midweek Twitter brainfart by former Bulls and Bok flyhalf Derick Hougaard (that legendary exponent of progressive, dynamic, ball-in-hand rugby), who opined that Coetzee’s miserable run is the fruit of transformation policies.

Hougaard seems not to have noticed that the most melanin-rich Proteas team to date are on the brink of securing South Africa’s greatest Test series result ever.

Domingo’s comeback is a credit to his savvy and endurance, but the factors behind the Proteas’ current swagger extend well beyond any coach’s contribution. Great national sports teams are always made by an intricate equation between the structural and individual, the past and the present – but structures and histories typically boss those equations.

So until South African rugby reinvents itself at a granular scale (a spectacularly difficult project in any given society, let alone our profoundly dysfunctional one), the Boks will always bow before the All Blacks, barring those sweet and rare seasons when the All Blacks are psycho-spiritually punished by the Maori gods for being such smug bastards and inexplicably lose their shit.

And, unless South African football is reimagined and restaffed at every level, Bafana will never reach the second round of a World Cup finals – no matter which snazzy-suited foreign genius is hired to scream “keepa your shape!” on the touchline while making sensual squeezing gestures with his cupped palms.

Which brings us to the woes of another national team custodian, the heroically cantankerous Shakes Mashaba. He has not kept his shape. Mashaba is set to face a disciplinary hearing next Thursday, when the South African Football Association’s (Safa’s) mandarins will seek to use his recent hissy fit aimed at them as an excuse to terminate his contract.

Some would argue that the promising result against Senegal in the opening World Cup qualifier should justify giving him a chance to continue the campaign – but we have seen enough of Mashaba and his anti-preparation philosophy to know that he is more likely to guide his charges to Mars than to Russia. Unlike Coetzee, Mashaba has had his chance to prove his capacity to adapt.

If Safa do ditch the grumpy grandpa, then they would do well to reappoint Pitso Mosimane in his place – provided they can convince the conqueror of Africa to take the gig. In a recent interview, the Sundowns coach claimed that he had no reason to return to international football, on the dubious grounds that the Confederation of African Football’s Champions League is comparable to the Africa Nations Cup, and the upcoming Club World Cup is comparable to the World Cup.

This was vintage Pitso – making a fairly valid point in an annoying way. Of course, he has every right to prefer his Downs gig, which is less boring than the Bafana job, much less stressful, and possibly even better paid.

The problem is that Safa cannot afford the kind of blue-chip foreign coach who could conceivably make a difference to the team – and no other South African coach can rival Pitso’s record or force of character. He’s notoriously arrogant – but for good reason, because he’s often right, having learnt his trade at length at the very different coal faces of domestic, international and African club football.

A case in point was his postmortem on the night his Downs side were comprehensively schooled by Bidvest Wits in the MTN8 final, in early October. Mosimane tried to be gracious but failed beautifully. “Sometimes everything happens for a reason. Maybe we win tonight and don’t win the Champions League. I will swap that because the MTN8 will come back again every year. The other one comes once in a while. It takes many years to go for it.”

And then he bloody went and won the Champions League, the so-and-so. He was right. But, even if he had been wrong, if he had lost in Cairo, he deserves our respect for having the gonads to speak boldly and honestly and face the consequences.

The grown-up sports fans of this land can all accept the limitations of our various talent pools and the cyclical nature of form and team development. But we do always expect a bit of a show, or at least a proper attempt at a show. We want our teams to take risks, to reveal pleasure in their work, to honour our attention and loyalty.

And the coaches need to be the soul of that performative project. Their duty is to honour the communal meaning of their task – not to win everything. Because the biggest secret of successful leadership is that you shouldn’t even bother. It’s a losing game from the get-go. That’s why those lumo-teethed “business gurus” savvily choose to write bollocksy bestsellers about management instead of managing people themselves. To herd groups of Homo sapiens toward a common goal is to fail, sooner or later, in one way or another, no matter how good you are.

Ask United States President Barack Obama, who strove bravely and fruitlessly for eight years to treat the country’s various sicknesses. Now, like vengeful superbugs, the sicknesses are back, stronger than he found them. But he did lead.

All we can ask of leaders, and national sports coaches, is to strive in style, with grace and wit and guts and honesty. At the very least, Coetzee deserves the time to demonstrate that – like all of us – he and his players are not ordinary people.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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