|Unbeaten: Bafana Bafana boss Shakes Mashaba|
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Let's get one thing straight from the outset. As I say again and again on twitter, SHAKES KNOWS BEST. Unbeaten in six Group A AFCON qualifiers and the Nelson Mandela Challenge, Ephaim Mashaba's record since taking over Bafana Bafana reads SEVEN games, THREE wins and FOUR draws, NO DEFEATS.
Again and again, Mashaba has confounded the critics. Right from that first training session at Mark's Park when Itumeleng Khune injured his heel, the "cheap but sensible option" has made a series of decisions which boggle the mind - but produce mind-boggling results.
Making the late Senzo Meyiwa his goalkeeper ahead of Darren Keet, and then naming him as captain, riled a lot of people in the Kaizer Chiefs camp. There was never any doubt the Belgian-based goalkeeper was the better choice but history will record - eternally since Meyiwa's still-unsolved murder - the Orlando Pirates No 1 kept a clean sheet in all four qualifying matches.
We talked too about his elevation of youngsters to the senior squad when they were not making the first team in the PSL. Yet Rivaldo Coetzee, hardly faultless in Ajax Cape Town's recent subsidence, was strong next to Tower Mathoho when he broke Aaron Mokoena's record as our youngest EVER international.
In midfield, Kamehelo Mokotjo, highly rated at FC Twente in the Dutch Ere Divisie, was flown out for those opening games against Sudan and Egypt... but never played. He went home frustrated with Mashaba (rather rudely) complaining he "looked heavy". He hasn't been seen in South Africa since.
Mashaba survived the "grabbing of the privates" incident against elderly Congo boss Claude Leroy and the banning of "fatigued" May Mahlangu but when Tokelo Rantie finally came good with two superb goals in Nigeria to put the AFCON champions OUT of the competition, Mashaba's star blazed beyond all others in our footballing firmament.
So when he announced the 34-man provisional squad for Equatorial Guinea, you could expect fireworks from the critics. But always, given the struggles of previous Bafana bosses Pitso Mosimane and Gordon Igesund, an underlying respect for Shakes prevails. His record as national team boss at all levels is hard to beat - he even got his beloved U20 AmaJitas past Cameroon to their continental championship while simultaneously taking over from Igesund at Bafana.
Incredible stuff. But that doesn't put him above critique. When he announced his 34-man squad, Shakes insisted there was still a chance for others to impress and make their way in to contention. But that isn't the point of a provisional squad. He must select 23 from those 34 in January, or the whole idea and the friendly against Zambia is pointless.
|THE CHOSEN MEN: SAFA's official 34-man squad for AFCON 2015|
Here are my FIVE questions for Mr Mashaba:
1 How can you NOT select Itumeleng Khune, injured in early September on Bafana duty, but stick with Platinum Stars stopper Siyabonga Mpontshane, who hasn't played for his club since the Telkom KO final? Khune is fit again and on the bench for the last three Chiefs games, surely he should go in to camp on Boxing Day and prove he's back to his best in training? Match fitness cannot be applied to goalkeepers the way it is with outfield players.
2 Tefu Mashamaite, ironically the man who has taken over the captain's armband at unbeaten, record-breaking Kaizer Chiefs, is perhaps the most glaring omission. He plays next to Mathoho every week and is head and shoulders better than Coetzee and other rivals like Kwandakwentsizwe Mngonyama of Maritzburg United, who is currently playing in midfield. I won't even mention Siyanda Xulu at Rostov or Buhle Mkhwanazi at Wits.
3 Perhaps the best full-back in the PSL right now is another Kaizer Chiefs player, Tsepo Masilela. He has consistently out-performed his rivals but there is no room for him while Mzikayisa Mashaba and Nsikelelo Nyauza are not regulars at Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates. Players who can't make their club first team being picked for Bafana is the prevailing theme.
4 As I've said above, Mokotjo and the now-banned May Mahlangu fail to find forgiveness from Shakes despite plying their midfield trade at a far higher level than the PSL in Europe. Obviously the all-foreign-based midfield will line up Ayanda Patosi, Dean Furman, Andile Jali and Thulani Serero but around them we have Vuyisele Wana of flightless Moroka Swallows and Asivele Mbekile from Sundowns. Two players who hardly leap to mind when discussing South Africa's top midfielders. Two players who, again, are not club regulars. What about George Maluleka and George Lebese? Or am I being biased towards the AmaKhosi, who lead the PSL by a mile?
5 Up front, Tokelo Rantie is currently out of action after sustaining a "partial dislocation" of his shoulder a minute after coming on for Bournemouth following his heroics for Bafana in Nigeria. It's unlikely the promotion-chasing Cherries will release him for AFCON let alone for the pre-camp on Boxing Day. Why not have a look at Lehlohonolo Majoro and Kermit Erasmus, around whom Orlando Pirates are finally beginning to build a two-pronged assault weapon? Bernard Parker's first inclusion in a squad under Shakes is a welcome addition, given his recent "glut" of three goals, particularly the brace against Bidvest Wits.
These five criticisms are not an assault on Shakes Mashaba's intellect. Neither is the bald statement that agent Tim Sukazi has more influence than he should have - the suggestion on the social networks is that he has NINE players in the squad, including most of the controversial ones. Obviously, having warred with Igesund over agent influence, I'm not going to get involved in all that again.
HOW BAFANA WILL LINE UP IN EQUATORIAL GUINEA
The truth is, the potential starting eleven is nearly as strong as it was in qualifying, where South Africa left the Super Eagles grounded - though I still find Mashamaite's ommission such a poor decision it seems almost sinister. Keet in goal, plenty of form full-backs, possibly Patrick Phungwayo and Anele Ngconca; Thulani Hlatshwayo and Mathoho at centre-back. They'll do.
To be frank, in a "group of death" featuring Algeria, Ghana and Senegal, a Rantie miracle cure would be very welcome. I dislocated my shoulder 34 times in my playing career, it's an unlikely dream. He needs surgery and intensive rehab, just ask Bryan Robson.
Sadly, with the official AFCON travel agents asking R145,000 to tour with Bafana, I won't be going to Equatorial Guinea when the Ebola-threatened tournament kicks off on January 17. But then neither will five or six of our best players, Khune, Mashmaite, Erasmus, Majoro or Masilela.
Having had my gripe over selection, having pleaded for the right to question (but not insult) an unbeaten, miracle-working national coach, we end thus: BEST OF LUCK BAFANA BAFANA. I suspect we'll need it.