Friday, 22 August 2014

Brave new world for Bafana: new assistant coach Owen da Gama on the rocky road ahead

In the hot seats: Da Gama and Mashaba
AMIDST the hullabaloo over Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba naming his first Bafana Bafana squad, one name escaped scrutiny. Perhaps Owen da Gama avoided the microscope because he was a surprise choice as assistant coach rather than one of the new, young players.

Da Gama’s sudden rise to the penultimate step on South Africa’s slippery footballing ladder comes after his involvement with Mashaba in the Nedbank Ke Yona talent search over the past few months. A few twitterers questioned 53-year-old Da Gama’s presence on the South African bench, but let’s make this clear: he has to get the benefit of the doubt, just like many of Mashaba’s youngsters as they head in to a four-day camp before tough AFCON 2015 qualifiers against Sudan in Khartoum on September 5 and Nigeria in Cape Town on September 10.

I spoke to Owen a few minutes ago. More of that later. But let’s have a look at the full Da Gama story first. It is a fascinating saga, not untypical of our game. He was a useful player, spending some time in Belgium and Ireland, and has had a long and varied career in coaching. But it was not always a fairy tale, particularly when he was accused – but cleared - of soliciting money from players to play in the first team at Platinum Stars a few years ago.

A youngster with Arcadia Shepherds (my old foe as a kid in Tshwane in the 1970s); Owen Joao Cornelius Da Gama was a striker; his spell as a professional at Pretoria Callies was pretty useful – he scored 17 goals in 35 games under former Glasgow Rangers legend the late Kai Johansson in the old NPSL, also turning out for Colchester United and Dynamos.

On the back of his exploits for Callies, Da Gama signed a three-year deal with Belgian club Beerschot in 1985 and was loaned to Derry City in Ireland where he won the League of Ireland title and scored a hat-trick in a cup final en route to becoming the club’s top scorer and PFAI Player of the Year in 1986. Playing for a Catholic team in Northern Ireland who competed in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, those were heady days in front of fanatical support during The Troubles.

In 1989, Apartheid prevented a move to Spanish First Division Club Figueres – no South Africans were allowed work permits in those days. Errol Hughes brought him back to South Africa’s Leeds United as player-coach with some success, before a stint at Moroka Swallows where scored twice in the 1989 Bob Save Super Bowl final against Mamelodi Sundowns. Da Gama ended his playing days at Dynamos when he picked up a career-ending knee injury in 1990.

And that’s when the coaching began. In 1992, Da Gama took Dynamos from relegation fodder to third in 1992 and returned under new owner Peter Rabali to lead Dynamos in to the new-fangled Premier Soccer League in 1996.

He then took Silver Stars – now Platinum Stars – from the Vodacom League to the National First Division in 1998 but left to run his own computer business in Pretoria.

There, he part-owned and coached PSM Parkhurst in the Vodacom League, finishing second before returning to Silver Stars where a remarkable run of 9 wins in 11 matches saved the club from PSL relegation in 2000.

Three years later, after relegation from the top flight, his Stars knocked mighty Orlando Pirates out of the 2003 ABSA Cup and won their place back in the PSL. In 2005 Stars ended on a high in 5th and he was voted PSL Coach of the Season at the end of the 2006 season. Simba Marumo (now head of our player’s union) scored a hat-trick to win them the Telkom Knockout against Ajax Cape Town in Atteridgeville.

By 2007, Silver Stars finished 2nd in the league and were playing in the 2008 CAF Champions League. That’s when Da Gama decamped to Orlando Pirates, replacing Bibey Mutombo after six games with the Buccaneers bottom of the PSL. Da Gama’s revival saw them rise to 8th but he left Orlando in June 2008 for a topsy-turvy year at Free State Stars as Director of Coaching and caretaker coach when David Duncan was ousted.

Bloemfontein Celtic and another relegation-saving campaign followed. He lifted Siwelele off the bottom of the table to 14th in 2009 and guided them to 6th the following year.

But now we come to the nub of the problem. In August, 2010, Da Gama returned to his old stamping ground. Silver Stars had become Platinum Stars, with the platinum-plated might of the Royal BaFokeng Kingdom behind the club in the North West.

Stars finished 10th in 2011 but the following season came allegations that Da Gama was asking players – and/or agents – for R5000 to play in the first team.

Da Gama strongly refuted those claims and himself called for an investigation. He was suspended in March 2012 and cleared of ANY WRONGDOING in May after what he calls “weeks of pure hell” – but soon resigned as he felt he “no longer had a working relationship with some officials at Platinum Stars” and was paid out on his contract.

Since then, in November 2012, he helped his old club Dynamos survive in the National First Division after a 6-match winless run, something of a tradition for the man born in Volksrust in August 1961. The also-traditional swift departure followed four months later.

Da Gama played a part in the early careers of many of South Africa’s top stars. He lists among his successes Surprise Moriri at Mamelodi Sundowns, SuperSport United’s Thuso Phala and Mulomowndau “Tower” Mathoho, now at Kaizer Chiefs and named in today’s Bafana squad.

Da Gama’s elevation to national assistant coach was confirmed in Cape Town Civic Centre yesterday by new head coach Mashaba – they had been working together on the Nedbank Ke Yona talent-search, naming their team yesterday to take on last year’s winners Orlando Pirates. Thabo Senong, the 34-year-old “encycopedia of youth” will fill the bench as second assistant and former Pirates goalkeeper Lucky Shiburi was named goalkeeper coach.

The South African Football Association remains without a Technical Director – former women’s TD Fran Hilton-Smith will apparently fill that role on a contingency basis – and Mashaba told us after naming his squad: “There is huge talent in this country.  I chose a big squad because we are playing two crucial matches; we don’t want to leave anything to chance.

“We are aligning ourselves with SAFA’s Vision 2022. The youngsters we have selected are part of that long-term vision.

“Along the way we will come across several competitions like the 2015 Morocco AFCON, the 2016 Rio Olympics, 2017 Libya AFCON, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

“But we also looked at current form, and some players are unfortunate not to be part of the squad, they are talented but don’t have the momentum yet as the league just started. All we ask for now is support from the public for this project we are working on.”

Shakes will get that support. In spades. His work with the Under 20s is well known and reasonably successful. He’s done the big job before, with results second only to Sir Clive Barker. But there is a critique emerging. Darren Keet, impressive in Belgium, is left out of the goalkeeping selection for AmaJitas’ No 1 Dumisani Msibi of SuperSport United. A fully-fit but axed Siyanda Xulu, on the bench for Russia’s FC Rostov in Europe last night, plays second fiddle to Bafana U20 defender Ayabulela Magqwaka who admits: “I just burst in to tears when I heard I’d been picked.”

Ajax Amsterdam’s Thulani Serero, so important as the fulcrum towards the end of Gordon Igesund’s Bafana tenure, is also out, and there is no place for May Mahlangu, who scored four times in early season action for Goteborg, attracting attention from West Brom among a host of European clubs.

Curiously, Ayanda Patosi – declared unfit by Lokeren in their Europa League qualifier against Hull City last night – is IN. So is Dean Furman, currently playing in England’s third flight, and Tokelo Rantie, who is only being used in brief spells by Bournemouth. The striking department, unavoidably, looks awfully weak.

So I called Owen Da Gama for his take: “This appointment is a surprise, but it’s also exciting to be involved in such a massive project. I helped choose the players. I’m very, very confident. The Shakes masterplan is the same as SAFA’s. It’s unbelievable when you look at the depth of that statement.

“Foundations are being laid in place. I’ve always tried to lay foundations wherever I’ve gone. We’re looking to the future but there’s no doubt about it, we want to win from the start, do as well as possible. We understand the challenges.

“It’s all a process. As much as we don’t want to send the message of immediate success, the main focus is Shakes wants to create strong patriotic frameworks. Nobody is guaranteed a place. Should these players come from overseas, they must have respect. Even if you play for Manchester United.

“The biggest problem we’ve had is certain matches are shunted, overseas players are suddenly not available. Serero is pedigree, but we are sending a strong signal out that everybody is going to be considered, must fight for a position. We had Siyanda Xulu and Serero on the list.”

Da Gama and I are the same age, we both played with a certain Roy Wegerle on opposite sides in the 1970. He now has my best wishes after a good phone call. The nation is behind Mashaba’s new Bafana.  But he knows Sudan will be a tough trip without Serero, Xulu and Mahlangu. And Nigeria in Cape Town even tougher.

Bafana squad:
Itumeleng Khune, Senzo Meyiwa, Dumisani Msibi.
Buhle Mkhwanazi, Thulani Hlatshwayo, Thabo Matlaba, Ramahlwe Mphahlele, Ayabulela Magqwaka, Mulomowandau Mathoho, Anele Ngcongca, Rivaldo Coetzee, Sibusiso Khumalo.

Themba Zwane, Sibusiso Vilakazi, Oupa Manyisa, Andile Jali, Dean Furman, Ayanda Patosi, Keagan Dolly, Mandla Masango, Kamohelo Mokotjo.
Tokelo Rantie, Bongani Ndulula, David Zulu, Bongi Ntuli.
Bafana reserves:
Darren Keet, Ronwen Williams, Ntsikelelo Nyauza, Bongani Zungu, George Lebese, Percy Tau, Nhlakanipho Ntuli, Siyanda Ngubo.

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