Football futures hang by a hair

Right now, Stuart Baxter is sitting down and staring at the ceiling. He is apprehensive. The Sword of Damocles is a thin thread away from impaling the Bafana Bafana coach.

Damocles sat on the Syracuse throne on condition that a sword, held only by a horse’s hair, perpetually hung above him. Similarly, Baxter knew when he took the job that his critics would be camped outside his door, ready to barge in should he show any sign of weakness.

He’s admitted as much before, remarking how his head will be demanded should Bafana Bafana lose to Libya this weekend and fail to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations.

He’s not wrong.

Defeat would be disastrous for all involved — except Libya, of course. It would almost certainly spell the end of Baxter’s second spell at the helm of South African football. The sword would probably fall before the rest of us haul our axes from the shed.

It would set the team back some years. Whatever progress has been made couldn’t survive this failure. Not when the job was halfway done, after Bafana beat Nigeria in Uyo, in the opening game of Group E.

“What we have to remember is we’re undefeated in this group, and if it remains that way then we qualify,” the experienced Dean Furman said this week. “So we have to take that as a huge positive. We’ve taken on one of the best teams in Africa and beat them away.

“As players, these are the games you want to play. Big games, where you’re representing your country, and there’s a huge prize at the end of it. For all of us who are here, it’s great to be here and we’re all pushing. We’re so focused on being at the Afcon this time around.”

The SuperSport United midfielder was part of the local contingent that has had to endure a rigorous travel schedule ahead of the match. Bafana arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday. There they met up with the European-based players before heading to Tunisia. The team trained at El Menzah Stadium for most of the week before heading out to Sfax.

It’s the selection of some of those international stars that has sent more murderous glances Baxter’s way. Keagan Dolly and Bongani Zungu were called up, despite playing very little football in recent months. The former broke his leg six months ago and was last seen playing for Montpellier’s reserve side. Zungu’s last game in the French league, for Amiens, was at the beginning of September. (It’s amusing to think how the clubs must have fumed when they found out their unfit players had been called up.)

Baxter seems to be gambling that they’ll bring an impetus to the team that was painfully absent in the 0-0 draws to Libya and the Seychelles. Bafana’s tendency to get complacent is well documented, and the fact that a draw this weekend is good enough might work against them. Both Dolly and Zungu started in the Nigeria win, incidentally.

But for all the naysayers, Baxter would look mighty smug should he be proved right. If he fails, his decision to omit the in-form Kermit Erasmus will make him look like a hypocrite.

The players say they’re just there to get the job done.

“It’s just another day, another match,” Zungu said. “We just have to go out there and play our hearts out and win the game for ourselves, our nation.There’s no pressure. The coach spoke to us and motivated us to not feel too much pressure, to just go to the match and just play.”

Part II: Postpone a nightmare

With Bafana’s recent proclivity for failure, it’s easy to forget just what the game means for the other side.

Libya has not known peace for a long time. The 2011 civil war that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi has left the country in shreds, and it’s now controlled piece meal by various militant groups.

The domestic league has routinely been interrupted and its clubs have to play their continental home games in neutral locations. Similarly, the national team, the Mediterranean Knights, have had to host their qualifiers in Tunisia, Egypt and Mali.

This is a national team without a nation.

Despite this, Libya has achieved some notable landmarks over the better part of the past
decade. In 2012, the team qualified for only their third Afcon. Two years later they achieved their maiden international title by winning the 2014 African Nations Championship. They beat powerhouse Ghana, courtesy of an enthralling penalty shoot- out in the final.

Qualifying on Sunday might just feel like their biggest achievement. The significance of progressing from a group that includes Nigeria and South Africa after being deprived of home football for over five years cannot be overstated.

Lybia have certainly proven their worth on the pitch. Bafana weren’t expecting it when they played host in September. Baxter was left tactically flat-footed when the Knights came out swinging; he wasn’t able to adapt to their surprise approach and was probably grateful for the final whistle confirmingthe draw.

“I expect Libya to be fired up, I expect them to play very passionate football,” Baxter said this
week. “But they can’t just attack us crazily in case we sneak one.

“We’ve studied them in every game and I think it’s unwise of me to start picking out players. Their midfield is very influential in the way that they play. I think their big striker is a pivotal point for them;they look for him from the flanks. I think the Libyan team’s strength is that they’re a team. They’re well organised and they all work for each other. That’s what we’ll have to deal with.”

Although he refuses to point out danger men to the media, the Scot will be well aware that most of the better-known international players are available for Libya.

Ahmad Benali is one of those attacking midfielders he alluded to. Raised in Manchester City’s youth setup, he plies his trade for Italian side Crotone. A versatile player, he has already scored against the Seychelles and Nigeria in this qualifying campaign. Ali Al Musrati is another regular in the centre of the pitch.Working for Vitória de Guimarães, Portugal, he has been a dependable option since 2014. With Muaid Ellafi and Hamdou Elhouni attacking down the flanks, there is no shortage of pace or flair going forward.

There’s no chance that Baxter will underestimate this team. He knows that doing so could well cost him his job,which is what makes this game so fascinating —the stakes are huge. A loss would shake the foundations of South African football,yet victory would bring joy to a nation that has had little cause to celebrate in recent times. Funny how 90 minutes of football on a Sunday evening can matter so much.

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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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