South African senior national football coach Stuart Baxter should have aged considerably this week, ahead of the final African Nations Championship (CHAN) tie against Zambia.
With the game due to take place at the Buffalo City Stadium in East London on Saturday, the Bafana coach encountered a mass withdrawal. He had selected a healthy squad of 25 players for the two-legged encounter against perennial rivals Zambia, but then watched in frustration as nine players were recalled by their respective clubs, citing preparations for the start of the domestic season, which officially gets underway this week.
But Baxter was unfazed by it and sounded relaxed, admitting that he understood the positions of the clubs.
“I would have also done the same. I mean, preseason is coming to an end and everybody wants their best players in camp to finalise preparations for the start of the season and we must remember that the CHAN falls outside of the Fifa calendar.”
But one could detect a hint of disappointment, particularly after he had announced that he wanted to use the CHAN tournament to blood youngsters such as Teboho Mokoena, Sipho Mbule and Tercious Malepe, to prepare them for the African Cup of Nations andthe Fifa World Cup challenges.
Cole Alexander was again expected to play the leading role from the middle, as he has done in the previous two legs against Botswana, but his club SuperSport needed him for the crunch MTN8 clash against Kaizer Chiefs.
Baxter will not have forgotten that, after scaling those unprecedented heights of handing Nigeria a beating in an Afcon qualifier in Uyo, it was a makeshift Zambia that spoilt the celebrations four days later in South Africa, when they defeated Bafana 2-1.
The Zambians have their tails up and, according to their mentor Wedson Nyirenda, they have now mastered the art of overcoming Bafana and come into this clash confident that they can repeat the feat.
It is the final encounter before qualification for Kenya, and Baxter can still draw on the likes of Siphelele Ntshangase, the Black Leopards playmaker who makes football look so simple with his accurate passing and one-touch football.
The second-leg match will be played in Ndola the following weekend and the winner will qualify for the tournament in Kenya.