It’s been a pretty awful week — South Africa’s headlines have been dominated by an endless stream of distressing news.
Football, so often a vessel of escapism, has not remained unaffected. On Tuesday evening, Zambia’s governing body announced it would be pulling out of the scheduled Lusaka friendly with Bafana Bafana because of growing safety concerns in Johannesburg.
To any fan this should cut deep — Southern African federations simply don’t do this to one another and this move ultimately amounts to a boycott against our own inaction.
The show will still go on, of course. Madagascar was hastily arranged as a substitute fixture and will serve as new coach Molefi Ntseki’s first match in charge.
No matter what has happened in the preceding week, all eyes will be on the team he puts out at Orlando Stadium on Saturday evening and its performance.
In many ways his inauguration comes at a fitting time. The inherent promise of his appointment, reportedly made unanimously by the national executive committee of the South African Football Association (Safa), is that he will create an inclusive team that constantly builds with an eye to the future. One that wins over a disillusioned fan base and possibly, dare we say, gives the nation something to unite behind. Usually so eager to embrace an obscure journeyman or big-name local, the organisation’s faith in someone who has diligently risen through its own structures is telling.
Ntseki himself has implied as much in the early days of his tenure, promising a no-nonsense environment that operates on merit instead of reputation. His vision is that the country’s football structures keep tabs on players across the country — from the MultiChoice Diski Challenge to the Premier Soccer League — and overseas.
“It’s not going to be easy, but what’s important is the rapport I’ve established with PSL coaches to keep in touch and help each other,” Ntseki revealed this week. “The best thing we can do for our football is to profile all players that qualify to play in the Bafana team. This is what you call auditing of players.”
To this end, the new coach wants to employ a full-time video analyst who will be able to bring up detailed highlights and statistics on any player considered for selection. He or she will also work alongside a new scouting and selection structure — one Ntseki wants to move closer to the models utilised by the national rugby and cricket sides so as to increase accountability. “We need to know how many games and minutes Keagan Dolly has played for his club … if he’s not playing, why is he not playing? We tend to call up names without having a better knowledge of the process and progression of that player.”
There’s not too much to be gleaned from Ntseki’s first squad selection. It came a week before he had been given the full-time reins and it will likely be some time until his identity begins to take shape.
He will not, however, be getting a free pass from anyone on how the team performs on Saturday.
There’s some irony in Madagascar emerging as the new coach’s first game. This is exactly the type of opponent, a lower-ranked island nation, that defined the failures of his predecessor’s time in charge.
It was Cape Verde that denied Stuart Baxter the opportunity to take Bafana to the World Cup — two notorious losses highlighting just how much work this team needed. A few months later a draw against the Seychelles similarly almost cost us a ticket to the Africa Cup of Nations. Between those seminal moments, Madagascar themselves knocked out a lacklustre South Africa from the Cosafa Cup.
The impetus is now on Ntseki to prove he has rooted out the lack of concentration and bouts of arrogance that gave us those outcomes. He will understand that there is arguably no job in South African sports that carries as much stress as the seat he has just occupied.
“When I was about to celebrate [after being named as coach] the reality crept in to say now you’re in charge: it’s an opportunity and a responsibility,” he said. “You need to go out there and do your best. And you need to understand that you are carrying the whole nation. If you look at what happened to your predecessors, it means you should have a way of understanding the environment before you begin operating within it.
“I’m not in this position to prove anyone wrong. I’m in this position to serve my country, to do the best that I can. And I’m in this position to get the best out of our players.”
As many of us increasingly clamour for a 90-minute escape route, few are asking much more of him.