Baxter, bring on the young ’uns

Despite repeatedly bottling their position, there is still a realistic chance of Bafana Bafana qualifying for Russia 2018. It’s difficult to believe, but they almost have their fate in their own hands — Cape Verde being the only team that could halt the party should they surprise us with three wins on the trot.

This equation makes the back-to-back losses against the tiny West African island all the more frustrating. How comfortably would Stuart Baxter be sitting right now if he captured six points against the Blue Sharks? Even three would have presumably lifted the sullen morale around the country to a much better place. But that didn’t happen.

We lost. Twice. Embarrassingly.

With respect to Cape Verde, confidence was high that the national team could produce the goods. Few foresaw that they would be thoroughly outplayed over two legs.

The Durban fixture in particular was a sad showcase of just how blunt Bafana are capable of being when they don’t put their minds to it. On the other side, Garry Rodrigues exploited the inefficiency with two ruthless, memorable strikes.

Bafana now sit bottom of group D, clinging to a dream that is fast beginning to resemble a nightmare. Us fans have been left poking at our calculators, desperately trying to figure out how to book that ticket to Russia.

It turns out solving for X is quite straightforward — we need to win.

Should South Africa win their three remaining games, then they would only be denied top spot if thorn-in-the-side Cape Verde won both of their last two. Even if a draw was thrown into the mix, it could still be enough — provided certain other outcomes are favourable.

Of course, the 12 Labours of Hercules were also simple on paper.

The chances of Baxter pushing his charges to a trio of victories looks extremely slim based on current form. The November game against Senegal in Dakar looks particularly intimidating and a Herculean effort will indeed be needed to escape with a win. The Lions of Teranga will also need to be tamed on home soil again, after the now-infamous reversal of last year’s result.

But, when all the talking is done, Bafana can only beat what’s put in front of them. That begins on Saturday. Should they lose, you can find a new home for that calculator at the bottom of your rubbish bin.

Ideally, the win should be a good one too. Momentum aside, goal difference could yet play a role — should Cape Verde get a win and a draw.

In the lead-up to the do-or-die game, and in the face of much criticism, Baxter spoke of South Africa as a land of extremes.

“Disappointment and frustration can throw up a whole whirlwind of criticism — some warranted and some probably not warranted — but you need to take it because you know that this is a game of emotions, and this is a game that stirs up passion,” he said.

“South Africa is a country of extremes, that’s what I’ve learnt. The people are extremely hospitable, extremely warm, and can be extremely nasty — some of the crimes here are extremely violent. But yet, you can’t believe it because those same people will invite you in for a cup of tea the day after.”

Ironically, extremes are one of the biggest issues behind the Scot’s tenure and its immediate history.

It does the nation no service to beat the Super Eagles of Nigeria but then go on to squander any progress with tepid displays against Cape Verde. South Africa craves consistency — the type of consistency we can use as a foundation to build a football team that can genuinely challenge the powerhouses of Africa.

Although Bafana could see their World Cup hopes evaporate on Saturday, others could reap the fruit of their steady progression. Opponents Burkina Faso are one such team.

Having emerged from relative obscurity to be genuine contenders, the Stallions are possibly the most improved African team in recent years. They’ve already proved this on South African ground, finishing as runners up in the 2013 Afcon. This year, they grabbed third place.

Should they come out on top at the FNB Stadium they’ll have a good shout at securing their World Cup berth.

Elsewhere, Uganda have a very real chance of finishing on top of group E ahead of Egypt. This year saw the team attend their first Afcon of the 21st century and consistent displays in World Cup qualifying mean they sit above the technically superior Ghana and within touching distance of the Pharaohs.

Much of the improvement can be credited to the calm hands of Sundowns goalkeeper Denis Onyango. The shot-stopper is an example close to home of the immeasurable value of a constant force delivering a constant impact. Amid his national team exploits, Onyango also steered the Brazilians to the Champions League last year on the way to being named the CAF Player of the Year.

Zambia, meanwhile, take on Nigeria on Saturday. Three points will leave them with a serious chance of qualification. Key to Chipolopolo’s relative success is the methodical way in which youngsters have been thrown into the fray. While gifting opportunities is one thing, coach Wedson Nyirenda has kept the faith that his boys will continue to reward him. He largely picked the same squad that defeated Algeria back-to-back and sent a clear message of intent by leaving out former captain Rainford Kalaba.

In the 31-year-old’s stead are four hungry young Copper Bullets: FC Spartak-2 Moscow’s Fashion Sakala, Belgian-based Emmanuel Banda and Red Bull Salzburg duo Enock Mwepu and Patson Daka. The quartet has been instrumental in the run of form — the last two notably grabbing goals in the triumphs against the Desert Foxes. Banda is the oldest among them — at 20 years old.

Baxter needs to figure out a formula to combine youth injection with consistency. Opportunities for junior players have usually come in the form of less important games such as the Cosafa Cup. Meanwhile, he has stubbornly ignored various young players who could potentially go on to form a backbone that could carry this team.

Motjeka Madisha and Lebo Mothiba finally got their call-up but it feels more forced than innovation. The former is in to replace the suspended Erick Mathoho whereas the latter had to force his inclusion by hammering in a hat-trick in the French second division last Friday. In Mothiba, Baxter has a forward who is capable of one day leading the national team line.

Sedwyn George is another who has gone overlooked in the midst of Bafana’s goal slump. The top goal-scorer in the National First Division last season, the Ajax Cape Town striker is a proven goal talent.

When a team is so obviously misfiring, this is the type of player we should throw a game at, a clear poacher who knows how to bury the ball in the back of the net.

For a player like this, lack of experience is not a factor as predatory instinct will always override learned talent.

The talent is there. Injuries notwithstanding, Baxter has a solid crop of players to call on.

The challenge should be to mould them into a unit that will stand firm and produce consistency for years to come. As a nation we cannot wait for youngsters to become club stars before we decide to call them up.

We should nurture them from a young age, so that Bafana becomes ingrained in their very DNA. 

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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