|Going Dutch: Serero and Ajax Amsterdam boss Frank De Boer|
Last Saturday, the man from Mapetla was due to play for South Africa against Botswana at the Moses Mabhida stadium in a 4-1 win (rendered meaningless when Ethiopia beat the Central African Republic 2-1 to finish top of CAF World Cup qualifying Group A).
Bafana Bafana head coach Gordon Igesund didn’t see it as a choice. Like any international manager he assumed Serero would be ready and able to play for both country and club after a R60,000 business class flight to King Shaka airport.
It is now common knowledge that Serero claimed he had “tight muscles” and could not play for his country 48 hours before kick-off. After establishing the 2011 PSL Player of the Year was fully fit, Igesund had him removed from the team hotel and a SAFA disciplinary hearing is likely to follow his report on the incident.
But that is only the tip of the Thulani iceberg. In a series of phone calls with various members of the squad, I can reveal:
1 Serero was reluctant to play for Bafana during AFCON in January, when he also claimed to be unfit despite a clean bill of health.
2 The youngster upset senior Bafana players by telling them on the team bus: “When South Africa needs to win, they call me”.
3 Serero refused to “warm down” in the swimming pool with the rest of the squad, telling the squad’s fitness coach: “I don’t do water”.
4 He told the Bafana medical team he was not fit to play but didn’t want to be publicly declared injured as it would have ruined his chances of playing at the Nou Camp.
5 Serero told journalists he was not in the starting line-up and was “tired of travelling for meaningless games in Africa”.
Igesund vehemently denied the last point, insisting: “I swear on my son’s life, Serero was IN my starting line-up. I told him that last Thursday. The rest of my team hadn’t even been picked by then.
“And even if he was on the bench, how do you think that sounds to people like Kagiso Dikgachoi, who is playing for Crystal Palace in the English Premier League, and Dean Furman who was struggled to get back in the Doncaster team since he came to play for us against Nigeria?
“Nobody is bigger than his country. I am the Bafana head coach Neal, I have to do what’s best for the nation. Serero’s behaviour was completely unacceptable. I was livid, I tell you.”
Though Serero has returned to the Netherlands without comment, the story rumbles on – with Igesund running the risk of huge criticism if the ousted South African plays a starring role for Ajax in the Champions League.
Igesund refuses to back down. His full explanation of events goes like this: “On Thursday I had already informed Thulani that he had been excellent at training, he’s performing well and I need him to take it to the next step. I know the kind of guy he is, and I wanted him to be ready to produce his best for South Africa for the first time.
“I said to him everyone in this country knows he plays in Holland and I asked him to show the people in this country what kind of a player he is. I told him, and this is the truth, that I was going to start him on Saturday and that I wanted him to start expressing himself.
“He trained on Thursday and he then went to my team doctor to tell him he’s got a tight muscle in his thigh/groin area. The doctor checked him out and said he is okay, no groin injury.
“The doctor had six or seven players in the team with tight muscles. He still trained and again he was the outstanding player, there was no problem with his movement.
“On Friday, our assistant coach Serame Letsoake came to me and he said Thulani had approached him to tell him he doesn’t want to play. I was quite shocked so I called Thulani, my doctor and Serame to a meeting in my room. I asked Thulani, ‘Are you injured’? He said, ‘I have a tight muscle and I’m scared I might injure myself’. So I said, ‘Thulani, you got to work with me here son. You know I want you in the team and now you say you don’t want to play’.
“The doctor was there and I asked him, ‘I want to know has Thulani got a slight injury?’ The doctor said he doesn’t have an injury and he’s got a tight muscle. When the doctor tells you that, he isn’t making it up. He’s a doctor for God’s sake.
“It turns out Thulani told the doctor that he doesn’t want to play because he’s got a big game in Holland next week. Of course I was annoyed - why did he even fly to Durban?
“Serero seems to have developed a big head, like he’s better than all the other players here. I had called the Ajax coach Frank de Boer and he said Serero needed game time.
“I don’t know what went wrong. He flew business class that cost R60 000 to fly over here with the intention of not playing. The truth of the matter is that Thulani Serero turned his back on us because he wants to play in the Champions League. That is insulting in my opinion.
“I was very surprised. There was no patriotism, I couldn’t take that, especially when I have a bunch of players who really want to pull on that Bafana jersey.”
Igesund had the player removed from the team hotel though he pointed out: “Serero was given the privilege of staying at the hotel next door and was offered meals and a lift to the airport.”
The story doesn’t end there. Igesund says: “I don’t like to make hasty decisions but Serero will have to face a disciplinary hearing after a write my report for SAFA. Do you really think I would have done all this without a good reason?
“I honestly believe I’ve done my job. I made the decision. I stand by it. I’ve done what’s right for the team and for the country. Some might say it harsh, but you’ve got to face up to your responsibility."
Like just about every other football journalist in South Africa, attempts to talk to Serero and the man who took him to Holland, Mike Ntombela, are proving fruitless.
My fear is this: If Thulani Serero produces a magical performance against Barcelona on the 18th, or if he stars throughout the tournament in a group which also includes AC Milan and Celtic, then what?
It’s one thing to overlook foreign-based South Africans who don’t appear on our televisions very often. It’s another to have burned your bridges with a man who could become South Africa’s premier footballer over the next couple of months.
And we all know what happened with Everton’s Stevie Pienaar when he felt he wasn’t sufficiently valued by Bafana Bafana. Can we really afford to push a second world class footballer in to the international wilderness?
Igesund’s closing statement is telling: “In life, there are decisions to be made. Serero is 23 and playing for a very big club in Holland, and if he is talking about retirement then he has to make his choices in life. You live and die by the choices you make. If he wants to put his club first, like Stevie did, I will never victimise him in any way.”
I will make every effort to get Thulani Serero on BOLLOCKZ! my show on www.ballz.co.za this week, it airs every Thursday from 10am-noon.