It’s taken a while but Molefi Ntseki will finally get to sit in the Bafana coach’s seat for the first time. He was previously denied that opportunity after Zambia pulled out of a friendly at the beginning of September because of the escalating xenophobic attacks plaguing the nation.
Now, a month later, South Africa will take on Mali in the Nelson Mandela Challenge in Port Elizabeth on Sunday. The responsibility that comes with playing under the great name is not lost on Ntseki.
“Firstly, it’s historic playing in the Nelson Mandela challenge,” he said this week. “For us to be part of the 25-year celebration, it’s a cherry on top. All the players we’ve selected are looking forward to playing for Nelson Mandela — the late icon of our country. As an individual, this will also be my first game as coach and I’m looking forward to the game itself. I hope the positivity that we have in the team right now will filter down on to the pitch.”
The nature of the occasion has necessitated a busy week ahead of his anticipated debut. On Monday, the squad paid a courtesy visit to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Parktown. The next day the last late arrivals joined up: Kamohelo Mokotjo waited at OR Tambo International airport for Percy Tau to arrive from a later flight before heading to the side’s hotel. By that time everybody else had rushed off to the FNB Stadium for a last training session in the Highveld before boarding a plane to Port Elizabeth. Wednesday saw excited visitors arrive from the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Thursday completed the week — which additionally had media opportunities sandwiched throughout — with a training match.
Such a schedule is nothing out of the ordinary for a national team but the rushed nature of it becomes relevant when we consider just how little time Ntseki has to fashion this team in his image before the important games start rolling in. Thanks to the failure to play a match during the last international break, Mali will be his only chance to test out any ideas before two important Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Ghana and Sudan in November. Thus, every minute of the 90 on Sunday becomes an important trial.
“We will have a maximum use of the game itself. We are looking a playing 90% of the players because in a friendly you can only make six substitutes,” Ntseki said. “The rest of the guys that will be on the bench. It’s still important for them to be in this camp because we are playing back to back against Ghana and Sudan.
“There are too many faces of the game and in preparation you will have what we call tactical flexibility. The group that we have called up will give us that,” he said. “Tactical flexibility in this case means that if you play a certain system, you can easily change in the game to play another system. Preparing for back-to-back games we need everybody in this team. They can raise their hand and be ready to play against Ghana or Sudan in November.”
A number of injuries and concerns have not made Ntseki’s week any easier. Team doctor Thulani Ngwenya has found the spotlight unusually pinned on him as he was called on to provide regular updates on the health of the team. Thamsanqa Mkhize, Brandon Petersen and Bongani Zungu were sent home, while Dean Furman remains a doubt.
All eyes, however, have of course been on Percy Tau — the nation’s golden hope who further burnished his reputation by playing a key role in Club Brugge’s incredible 2-2 draw at the Bernabéu last week.
He arrived in camp with a niggle but Ngwenya was happy to let him join a full session — provided he was monitored — by Wednesday. The faith that millions have in the diminutive attacker is one thing that will not be changing under the new boss and there will be a collective breath held until the team sheet is released.
As the team stands, the coach has already begun to make good on his promise to oversee an inclusive camp that draws on form and not reputation. Tshepo Rikhotso (Bloemfontein Celtic), Thato Mokeke (Cape Town City), Mothobi Mvala (Highlands Park) and Ricardo Goss (Bidvest Wits) would all get their first cap if called upon. Others, such as Eric Mathoho and Mosa Lebusa, find themselves back in the squad after missing out on Afcon this year. Some of the changes have been injury forced but there is still a definite sense of equal opportunity.
“We are giving everybody a chance. Do well and you’ll get a chance. Is your team doing well? It means you’ll get the spotlight,” Ntseki said.
This is only the beginning, if Ntseki is to be believed. He reiterated his desire to track down and monitor anyone around the world who might have South African eligibility and to ensure a video analyst is watching their games and compiling clips that can be accessed with a click.
Kearyn Baccus — Kaizer Chiefs’ Australian-raised midfielder — and Preston North End’s Tom Barkhuizen are two examples he gave of players he’s looking into. Polokwane City goalkeeper Cyril Chibwe, meanwhile, has rejected Ntseki’s advances in favour of representing Zambia.
In theory, the approach should foster an atmosphere that encourages hard work just as it expels indifference.
“I’m excited; I’m happy to be here,” Lebusa said on the sidelines of training at FNB Stadium this week. “I think I just have to believe in myself and keep working hard and hopefully I’ll get another call-up.”
The centre-back has long been praised by his club coach, Pitso Mosimane, as one of the best in the country but has nonetheless found it difficult to break into the national setup. The next challenge will be for him and Mathoho to disrupt the preferred pairing of Wits duo Thulani Hlatshwayo and Buhle Mkhwanazi.
“It’s good competition,” Lebusa said. “I know Tyson [Hlatshwayo] from way back at Ajax. I’m just happy to be with him again. I just want to learn from him and Buhle because they’ve been here for so long.”
One of the failings of Bafana over the last few years was that there never was a concrete sense that the side was able to turn results into progress. There were moments for Stuart Baxter but it’s hard to argue that the team is better off now than when he first found it. By showing a willingness to blood new players outside the Cosafa Cup, Ntseki is already encouraging healthy competition and widening the selection pool.
It may just be an exhibition but Sunday’s clash with Mali is increasingly shaping up to be a preview of what we can expect from his reign.