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It’s do or die for Bafana coach Baxter

Come next week, Stuart Baxter may well be looking at his future prospects with the national side with a good degree of scepticism. He can avoid that with a win against Libya on Saturday, of course, but anything else will signal the wolves. And they’re particularly hungry of late.

They have hounded the Bafana coach and accused him of nepotism after the Scot called up his son, Lee Baxter, to replace the unavailable Andre Arendse as goalkeeper coach. The velocity at which this criticism has spread was not sparked by this incident alone; frustration has been burning in our collective memories ever since the team so spectacularly threw away any World Cup prospects against Cape Verde.

As we wander through the doldrums of Bafana failure, we are prone to lose sight of the fact that we actually want to win. Surely something is amiss when the man tasked with driving us to our desired destination has to spend so much time at the training camp in KwaMashu explaining away a backroom staff appointment.

For Kaizer Chiefs and Bafana legend Doctor Khumalo, at least, it’s time to change the attitude with which we approach these games.

“This is not about Stuart, this is the national team. There is a national duty,” he argues. “The supporters, even myself as an individual, I am obliged to be positive and give positive support to the nation in order for us to get the results. If we don’t then there will be negativity and all that will be thrown out of the window.”

After so many eventful months, it’s easy to forget just what a fantastic position Bafana holds in Group E for qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). Beating favourites Nigeria away from home was massive and places Bafana only a few wins away from qualifying. With two games against Libya and the Seychelles still to come, in theory that trip to Cameroon next year should be locked up.

It’s that same ostensible assurance that will pile on the pressure should the points fail to materialise. It’s hard to imagine the public, and by extension the South African Football Association (Safa), mustering up the patience to support Baxter should that laid-out plan begin to unravel.

Not helping his cause have been the casualties that his selected squad has suffered. Bongani Zungu, Hlompho Kekana, Themba Zwane and Lebo Mothiba have all pulled out because of injury, leaving options up front fairly thin.

“The hiccups might have jeopardised the tactical approach or idea that he and his team might have had,” Khumalo said.

“We can refer to history but at the same time we can mend it. We just hope and wish that this time around he can get it right.

“Having said that, he would have loved to have everybody at his disposal. Having worked with Stuart, he’s very knowledgeable and a strong character, and he will mend his tactical approach to salvage a win.”

Khumalo is one of those rare players who never incurred the full wrath of the fans. Adored as a one-club man and respected by rivals, he knew what it took to give his whole being to the team, and the supporters recognised it.

Although Baxter may capture the headlines one way or another, he demands that players must deliver a performance that justifies their selection.

“Players understand that being called up is a blessing. You are a soldier, you must go out there and die for the nation. It’s not about Stuart, or his technical team, or Safa … we are all in this together as a nation. If it is criticism, let it be positive criticism. If it’s something not worthwhile to talk about, let’s rally behind the team instead.”

It’s a sentiment that’s easy to get behind with Afcon 2019 in sight. But should the heads on the pitch at Moses Mabhida drop tomorrow, it may become hard to keep ours high and filled with purpose.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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