Bafana confront their hoodoo

The Bafana Bafana camp were notably relaxed this week before their back-to-back games against the Seychelles.

Sunshine warmed the glossy fields at Steyn City School as coach Stuart Baxter took the squad through light drills and practice games on Monday and Tuesday. Sessions lasting less than two hours with plenty of ball play left the squad jovial and chatty. On Wednesday, they played a closed-doors practice match against SuperSport United — winning 1-0, for what it’s worth.

This relatively unharried approach presumably has something to do with the hoodoo that has begun to envelop the camp whenever the side stares down at a supposedly lesser nation. Priority number one is eliminating all sense of hysteria when going through on goal. That was supposed to happen against Libya last month but fans left Moses Mabhida Stadium with an even greater sense of distrust in the forward line.

“I think a lot of times it has to do with the individuals themselves and not so much the team, because we seem to be creating the opportunities but getting overanxious and panicking a bit,” new staff member Shaun Bartlett said on the sidelines of training on Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re working on that mind-set of staying composed and working on that technique. You know, having the awareness … and all those things combined. That’s what we’re pretty much doing going into the game.”

Bartlett’s inclusion in the technical team was an intriguing announcement this week. Baxter spoke extensively from the side’s hotel in Sandton on Monday about his and the South African Football Association’s (Safa’s) shared desire to bring in former players into positions of prominence in and around the setup. We have seen this already with former captain Aaron Mokoena becoming a buffer between the two entities and Andre Arendse settling in as goalkeeper coach. This was also the rationale behind Baxter’s son Lee’s call-up, which didn’t go down too well in the public court. 

In Bartlett, who is employed on a game-by-game basis, South Africans have a second assistant they hope can navigate a route to goal. Although not particularly prolific at club level, six years of which were spent at Charlton Athletic, he sits only behind Benni McCarthy on Bafana’s all-time top-scorers list with 28 goals in 74 appearances.

The theory is that, by including these “legends”, the national team will become a den for young players to further their development. As Bartlett acknowledged, too often they arrive for their call-ups carrying unpolished facets of their game.

“Unfortunately, when the domestic league is not providing a lot of goal scorers, the national team also suffers. We have got to impact that when they do get here and hopefully they do take it back with them to their respective clubs. But again, you’re talking about a higher level of football. It should be done at a lower level.”

The gig is also an opportunity for Bartlett to revive his own stuttering coaching career. The former Kaizer Chiefs forward was replaced at Golden Arrows in 2015 despite securing promotion to the Premier Soccer League and was later sacked by the University of Pretoria after failing to do the same for them (although, the club claimed it was amicable).

Bafana’s choice of training ground this week was certainly a peculiar one. The school fields lie just outside of the uber-posh Steyn City, the exclusive village built to ensure its residents never have to leave its confines or interact with the proletariat.

Bar two or three, the neighbourhood children showed no interest in the fact that they had the opportunity to watch the country’s best footballers at break time.

Baxter, however, sees no issue with the choice of venue and insists it was chosen for its pristine pitches that mimic that of FNB Stadium. He revealed that he requested it to be watered so his side could practice quick-passing, free-flowing football.

It doesn’t take a pundit to predict that the Seychelles will come to frustrate on Saturday. Moving the ball with speedy determination could possibly be the only way to avoid the calamities witnessed against Cape Verde.

“You have to realise that a lot of the times when you come up against Bafana Bafana, players increase their capacity,” Bartlett continued. “It could be, however small a team, they want to beat South Africa. It’s a big scalp for them. So we have always had to be on top of our game. Teams will make it difficult.

“The same will probably be on Saturday. They’ll probably come and have 10, 11 players behind the ball. So we have got to have the ability to open them up and be patient and try and get the early goal.”

Relaxed sessions to improve confidence and composure, another former player to filter down his philosophy — there’s a tangible feeling that Baxter is adopting a different approach to what he implemented in Durban a month ago. With Group E taking a tight turn, he can’t afford for it to fail in the Highveld.

Baxter confirmed this week that Orlando Pirates winger Vincent Pule and Sundowns wing-back Thapelo Morena have fallen casualty to injury. They have been replaced by Thembinkosi Lorch and Thamsanqa Mkhize respectively. Sibusiso Vilakazi will also miss the match after picking up a knock in training. His replacement had not been named at the time of going to print. Kick-off is at 3pm on Saturday.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

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

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