|Saviour of the universe? Bafana boss Gordon Igesund|
I’ve just spoken to Gordon Igesund, the man with the toughest job in football. Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and Johan Neeskens of Mamelodi Sundowns may dispute that right now. They’d be wrong.
Back in 1980, Freddy Mercury and his popular music quartet Queen sang: “Flash Gordon. Aha. Saviour of the Universe.” For South Africa’s own Gordon, saving the planet would appear to be a doddle compared to taking on five-times global conquerors Brazil on Friday night.
Just last Friday, after Igesund named his first squad to play Brazil and Mocambique, I was thinking seriously of fronting a television show about the 56-year-old’s heroic deeds with Queen’s Flash Gordon as the signature tune.
But a weekend, as every international coach knows, can be a long time in football. On Saturday, Steven Pienaar – Igesund’s iconic captain from Westbury – was declared crocked by a “thigh muscle strain” despite playing the full 90 minutes in Everton’s disappointing defeat at West Bromwich Albion.
Rather than turning to Orlando Pirates sought-after dynamo Andile Jali or Sundowns play-maker Teko Modisane, Igesund chose to call up the impressive SuperSport United midfielder George Maluleka. Controversial but understandable given the form of the Buccaneers and Brazilians of late.
Saturday also saw the withdrawal of Belgian-based Anele Ngcongca, who injured knee ligaments while playing for Genk. The club say he will be out for “at least two months”. That may open the way for 18-year-old Peterborough defender Kgosi Nthle to make an unexpected debut in Sao Paolo. Igesund’s only ever seen him play on video but as been assured by Posh boss Darren Ferguson – one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s twin sons: “He will never let you down.”
But it’s up front where Gordon’s universe is beset by falling stars. First, he told us in his squad-naming announcement last Thursday how he had picked former Orlando Pirates loan ranger Tokelo Rantie in his original squad of 23.
But then he explained how, on both the player and his new club Malmo’s advice, he had opted to scratch Rantie’s name off the list as he was “only 60 per cent fit”. Then what happens? Rantie scores for Malmo – his fifth goal in four games - in a 1-1 draw with Mjallby and played for 78 minutes before being subbed.
And back in South Africa, Igesund’s “old reliable” Siyabonga Nomvethe – PSL top scorer for Gordon’s Birds last season - suffered scan-confirmed “torn ligaments in his big toe” during a remarkable 3-0 win for Moroka Swallows at Orlando Pirates in the oldest Soweto derby.
Igesund immediately called up Sundowns striker Jabu “Edward” Manqele, the Brazilians’ R7m transfer window signing from Free State Stars. But he too was withdrawn, after pulling a hamstring in Sundowns shock defeat 2-1 against Martizburg United amid the riot police at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville.
Then, and only then, Gordon turned to big, bad Benni McCarthy, last season’s PSL title-winning hero for Orlando Pirates who was controversially sent off amid further crowd trouble in the MTN8 semi-final defeat at the Orlando Stadium a week ago.
When Gordon rang yesterday morning, at the airport on the way to his date with destiny in Sao Paolo on Friday (Live from Estadio Morumbi on SABC1, 8.45pm), the weight of saving the universe with a patched up platoon hung heavy on his shoulders.
“Look Neal, you can’t say I’m upset about Rantie playing for Malmo. I spoke to the club and the player. They both said he was not fit. Rantie said he was sore because he hadn’t been through proper pre-season training.
“He said he was 60 percent fit and he didn’t want to play for Bafana when he was less than 100 percent. Rantie said he might only get one or two chances for the national team and he wanted to impress right from his first game with me.
“Then Malmo called and thanked me for leaving him out. They said it was the right decision. What can I do? I have to take their word.
“Then came the news that Stevie Pienaar and Siya Nomvethe were out. You can imagine. What a blow. My Premier League captain and Nomvethe, such a good, experienced Zulu lad.
“But look, you know Benni McCarthy. He can still do the job. And I’ve still got Bernard Parker, who scored four for Kaizer Chiefs the other day and Dino Ndlovu who scored his third goal of the season in Israel over the weekend.”
Igesund can also point to the two goals scored by Thulani Serero for Ajax Amsterdam yesterday – though he was sent off 53 minutes in to the 2-2 draw against Herenveen for a “crude challenge” on Filip Duricic.
Gordon continued: “You have to turn these negatives in to positives. I still have good players, we are still on track. I can look at some of the young players like Serero and Nthle, check them out.
“And you’ve seen this squad. It’s well-balanced, the mood is good, we are still positive. Now we just have to play Brazil with Neymar and all their stars on their biggest public holiday of the year.
“I know how hard it will be, but this is a new era for Bafana. But we aren’t going to worry about Neymar. We won’t go out there feeling inferior to Brazil, even though we know good they are and the crowd will be noisy.
“You know me, I won’t go out not to lose. I’ll play positive football with wide players. And we’ll make our country proud.”