Sunday, 29 September 2013

From the bottom to the top: Craig Rosslee explains his 10-month revolution at AmaZulu

Leader of the green revolution: Craig Rosslee

Explain this: Ten months ago, AmaZulu were marooned at the bottom of the PSL. Today, they are level on points at the top of South African fooball.

It’s the kind of turnaround which creates legends in Europe. But in South Africa, AmaZulu’s rise from the ashes has gone almost unnoticed.

The key to the AmaZulu revolution is the coach Craig Rosslee, a former Hellenic, Santos and Cape Town Spurs defender who went on to coach Ajax Cape Town and played a major part in Orlando Pirates first treble as assistant to Ruud Krol in 2009/2010.

When Rosslee took over AmaZulu in November last year, the famous cries of Usuthu! were muted. The club had managed just nine points from 12 games under Swedish boss Roger Palmgren and they trailed behind Chippa United and Leopards, the clubs destined for relegation. Under Rosslee, they took 20 points from their remaining 18 games to secure safety in 12th position.

This season they have 11 points from their first five games and share the top of the PSL with SuperSport United, Kaizer Chiefs, Mamelodi Sundowns and Moroka Swallows.

Rosslee, also an accomplished television analyst, told me on my football show BOLLOCKZ! on Ballz visual radio (see video at the foot of this story): “Ten months! Obviously my first task was to keep the club up last season. We had nine points when I arrived, we got clear of relegation, we ended safely in mid-table.

“At the end of the season we decided to make some changes. We shipped out 17 players, brought in 15. We only kept a handful of the old players.

“At this point in time it’s a work in progress. The aim is to get the players to gel, to get them playing together. It’s coming along nicely now. We’re doing it in a very professional way, we have character, guys who do the work. That’s what we’re looking for.

“If this squad can apply themselves, both on and off the field, I see a great future for the club.”

In charge of one of South Africa’s oldest clubs (founded in 1932 only Wits University (1921) is older), Rosslee grins: “Remember I played for AmaZulu, like you I remember the Joel Fayas. This job is more about what I can give back than what I can take from this club.

“The Royal Family back us, the people look to us. Things stagnated. South African football in general has to find a way to move forward, and we have a duty to encourage development too.

“We’re lacking goals in this country. How do we address that? I’m happy to work on that generally, with all the other clubs.

“We have to find goals. Look at Gavin Hunt at Wits. He’s spoiled for choice up front but still doesn’t get them. How do we get players to score goals?

Hot shot: Ayanda Dlamini

“I need strikers who can score more than five goals a season. I have to get goals from other positions too if we’re not going to get 15 or 20 goals out of a striker. We need wide men to can put the ball in the right place.

“Apart from Bongani Ndulula, our predominant target man is Ayanda Dlamini, he took a while to get on centre stage, he’s 28 now. But he’s getting the goals that get us out of trouble. He’s a fantastic finisher.

“You have to work with the strikers, get them to hit the target, hit the target. Because often that’s not done at the development stage you know.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve still got to work on these lads, get them to develop their skills while they’re playing at the top level of football in South Africa.”

With a near-fullhouse at the Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban on Saturday to witness Platinum Stars’ surprise penalty shoot-out MTN8 final win over Orlando Pirates, Rosslee believes a successful AmaZulu can awake the dormant fans in the port city.

He insists: “I would love to see the stadium full for games against all sides in the PSL. I believe if we play the right brand of football we can do that. That needs to be reflected across the country. Play attacking football and the fans will come.”

BOLLOCKZ! my show on, airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. See the Ballz channel on Youtube for our growing collection of interviews like the one above.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Baxter fuming on the Kaizer Chiefs bus after Soweto Derby: If you give a penalty for THAT, you have to give penalties all day

Shooting from the lip: Chiefs boss Stuart Baxter

AS I write this, Stuart Baxter is on the Kaizer Chiefs bus struggling to come to terms with an MTN8 semi-final defeat at the hands of his old rivals Orlando Pirates.

And he is running and re-running video replays of the incident which turned the second leg around: the 74th minute penalty which ensured a home draw for the Buccaneers, who advance to Saturday’s final 2-1 on aggregate after their 1-0 first leg win.

Double-winning Baxter, the first foreign coach ever to win the PSL in his first year as a club coach in South Africa, is not a fool. He doesn’t put his foot in it, like Clinton Laursen famously did live on camera earlier this season after Bloemfontein Celtic red card against Mamelodi Sundowns.

He’s calm. He’s contained. But he’s fuming after seeing Bernard Parker’s first half rebound cancelled out by Lennox Bacela’s spot kick.

I cannot quote everything he said. I can tell you he did send two post-match SMSes which made my blackberry go bright red.

What I can say is this. Stuart Baxter feels desperately aggrieved. He has no personal issue with referee Daniel Bennett but his opinion deserves to be aired.

The fateful moment: Gould pulls Bacela's shirt
Picture from @matipwili on Twitter
As he watched the re-runs of Morgan Gould’s infringement on Orlando Pirates striker Lennox Bacela he issued a couple of non-printables: “I haven’t looked at this before, bear with me Neal,” said the man from Wolverhampton, then “Is THAT it? That’s what he gave the penalty for? FOR THAT?”

A discussion followed. On the bus, other opinions were being thrown about it the background. Obviously the Chiefs technical staff and their players sounded distinctly unhappy, as you'd expect. Much was said.

Here’s what I can quote from Baxter: “I had to be cautious after the game. I’ve blamed referees before and been wrong. I didn’t want to do that again.

“But now I’ve had a look at the incident, I’m confused. The level of Morgan’s contact on Bacela was much as it was on ANY corner at either end during the game. If he’s going to give a penalty for that, there would be penalties all day.

“In the modern day, there is always contact in the box on corners. One of our lads too an elbow in the face when their lad (Rooi Mahamutsa) was booked earlier in the game. That’s football these days, that’s what happens.

“I cannot understand this decision. I thought we’d weathered the storm when they hit the bar (Vieira Masalesa header after Siya Sangweni nod-back) but the penalty came just as we were starting to get back in the game.

“We ruled the first half. I don’t understand why we lost momentum second half. Their substitute Sifiso Myeni is a good player, he helped change the game. But we were playing long balls. We stopped playing for 20 minutes.

“In the end, we have to accept this result. It’s tough. But there you are. Best I don’t give you the full weight of my opinions right now!”

Baxter, always a great talker with encouraging ideas about development and the future, managed to contain his fury. Roger de Sa on the opposing bench could hardly contain his joy after a dramatic and entertaining Soweto derby at a sold-out Orlando Stadium.

Roger, whose Sea Robbers reached the last four of the African Champions League on Sunday, said: “We’ve done to great clubs like Al Ahly and Kaizer Chiefs in 24 hours (actually it’s 48 Roger!) and that can’t be bad. My boys never stopped running, we worked and worked.

“They were on top in the first half, but Myeni changed things, we came back in to it. It’s been tough. Two massive game like that in such a short space of time. Oupa Manyisa? How much running did he do today? Young Masilesa has stood up so well too.

“But we have a day off now. I hope my dog won't bite me, I haven' been home so long he might not remember who I am! Then the final in Durban on Saturday. We’ll be ready.”

BOLLOCKZ! my show on, airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. See the Ballz channel on Youtube for our growing collection of interviews like the one above.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Old-fashioned Zeca Marques uses "the power of the mind" to get Moroka Swallows flying among the big boys

Gloves are off, the jacket is on: Zeca Marques

ZECA MARQUES has used “the power of the mind” to take his unfashionable Moroka Swallows to the top of the PSL table five games in to the new season.

The Porto-born 52-year-old took over at Dobsonville when Gordon Igesund went off to coach South Africa and after a tough first season, the jacket-thrower’s methods are beginning to pay dividends as they jockey for leadership among FIVE clubs currently locked on 11 points.

Talking on my football show BOLLOCKZ! on Ballz radio (see video below), Marques and I discussed our formative years of playing at left back before he explained: “Being top is a great feeling, testament to what we’ve done for the last four games. Our performances have been solid.

“I was disappointed we didn’t win against Kaizer Chiefs and AmaZulu, somehow that one slipped away from us - but I’m happy with the win over PSL leaders SuperSport United on Wednesday night.”

With another point picked up in a 1-1 draw against Maritzburg United on Saturday, Zeca insists: “One guarantee I can give you is this: we’re going to go out there and upset the apple cart. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got the ambition. My players have got the vision, there’s a new sense of belief in the squad. More self-assurance.

“I think the guys are starting to realise: You know what, maybe we’ve got an outside chance here.”

Marques, a very different character to his predecessor Igesund, insists: “Gone are the days when Swallows are going to step back for any team. I keep telling our guys, the players are the most important resource, not the finances or the attendances.

“I focus on tactical stuff and the mind. If we start believing in our team, work together as a unit – like rebels – we can surprise anyone.

“We stand back for nobody. I’m happy with that. On the psychological side we’re coming through.”

Amid twitter gossip about “the three mlungus at the back”, Marques laughed: “I’ve gone back to the old school of thought. Bring in two white kids at the back. Take no prisoners, aggressive. And it’s working for us!

“Levi (Mokgothu) is an exciting you left back, Roger (de Costa) and Lenny (Cohen) as the two centre-backs, Papi at right back. Giorgi Nergadze just in front of them. You and I have spoken about this many times: no more nonsense. We see it as a challenge.

“I’m a great believer that we are capable of doing something special. I’ve made that statement to our team. Don’t quote me! But I’ve said our team will be a study case at the end of the season. We’re going to prove people wrong this year.

“You can only do that with the right mentality. Take no shit. Don’t be intimidated by big names of whatever. WE COMPETE. That’s the approach Neal. I’ve been around. Too many times we get complacent, try to patronise people, put too much respect on Sundowns, Chiefs and Pirates.

“Who the hell are they? Half the players at Pirates and Chiefs wouldn’t make my side at the moment.

“The human being is our greatest resource. The mind is our biggest asset. That’s what we use.”

But amid the strong words, Marques has a word for his old Troyeville goalkeeper Roger De Sa, the Orlando Pirates coach, who faces Al Ahly in a win-or-bust African Champions League clash in Soweto on Sunday.

Marques said: “Support football, number one. Champions League games are special to the Soweto people. Our support will encourage them, bring the best out of them.

“May the best team win. Obviously, with Roger being my friend, I want Pirates to win!

“You know what, at the end of the day, Pirates are representing our country. Go and support, for the pride of our country,  as a nation. Go and support Pirates on Sunday.”

BOLLOCKZ! my show on every Thursday from 10am-noon. See the Ballz channel on Youtube for our growing collection of interviews like the one above.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Roger de Sa on Orlando Pirates going back to Rooi - and his appeal to the nation before Sunday's Champions League showdown

He could soldier on: Andile Jali
ORLANDO PIRATES coach Roger De Sa barely has time to catch breath this week as he heads from Wednsday night’s 1-0 win over Polokwane City to Sunday’s African Champions League showdown with Al Ahly.

And that is followed by the MTN semi-final second leg clash against arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs on Heritage Day Tuesday at Orlando. Three HUGE games in six days.

Undaunted, De Sa found time to talk to me on my Ballz radio football show BOLLOCKZ! on Thursday, explaining: “It was so important for us to get three points on the board against Polokwane City. We’ve only played two PSL games between all the African Champions League ties. It was important for us to stay in touch!

“Rooi Mahamutsa got a good goal for us and it was enough for a valuable win. Solo run, great low shot, happy for him.”

With Pirates having played only two PSL games, they could go top if they win their three games in hand on leading trio Moroka Swallows, Supersport United and Amazulu. But De Sa is already focused on the clash with African Champions League Group A leaders Al Ahly on Sunday.

De Sa says: “If I’d said to you six months ago we’d be playing the last game of the group stages to qualify for the semi-finals you would have laughed at me!

“We’ve done extremely well. We have to enjoy the moment, know what to expect. It’s going to be tough against Al Ahly. They’re a great team. The holders, African giants from Egypt.

“To be in the position we are is great for us. I certainly hope we can continue to fly the flag for South Africa. It’s been fantastic for the players and everyone at the club.”
Having beaten Al Ahly at the Al Gouna Stadium in the away fixture, Roger adds: “We’ve got to win. The only other option we have is a draw if Leopards lose.

“We’ve got to worry about our own game against a side who don’t really need a result to go through. If they needed a result it might be different.

“They play good football, but they let you play as well. We’re looking forward to it. We’ve got to rise to the occasion. We’ll have a go.

“There’s a little bit more in it. Al Ahly might be looking at finishing top of the group so they play Cameroon’s Coton Sport. If they come second, they play Tunisia’s Esperance. There are a lot of things that could come in to play.

“Right now, we need a win. We’ll take it from there.”

As for the Andile Jali injury situation, De Sa (see video below) confirms: “Andile Jali took a horrible fall against Polokwane, it felt like it dislocated and went back in. He’s in a bit of pain right now, the next 24 hours are crucial. He’ll have treatment.

“I think he’ll be all right and soldier on. I’m not 100 percent sure, but it looks that way."

Subsequent reports suggest Jali is out of Sunday's clash, a major blow for the Buccaneers. But De Sa SMSed me after those reports appeared, saying: "We'll only know tomorrow."

De Sa added: “Jali is a great player. His ability to recover the ball? He had the most number of steals in the PSL last season, more than twice anybody else in the country. He’s unbelievable. He steals the ball from the opposition, his decision-making is also great. Be nice to have him on Sunday!

“Thandani Ntshumayelo and Collin Mbesuma wore soccer boots or the first time this week, did some light work with the ball, lot more work in the gym but they’re not fully in to training against yet.

“I would say in a week or two, depending on their fitness, they might be available for selection. They are the only two problems, hopefully there will be no surprises at training waiting for me later when we do a bit of rehab.

“We’re looking at training in the afternoons to get us used to the afternoon kick-off on Sunday. We’re told it’s 2pm but I see SuperSport are advertising a 2.30pm start. Both AC Leopards at Zamalec and Al Ahly in Orlando are supposed to kick off at the same time.”

And with Sunday looming, Roger issued THIS PLEA to the Bucca Bucca fans and ALL South African football fans: “Everywhere we go, apart from Egypt where they have problems, we have huge crowds.

“At TP Mazembe it was incredible. There were 25,000 in the same jersey. We got blown out of the stadium until ten minutes from the end when they started applauding us.

“It’s unbelievable how they get behind their teams in Africa. On Sunday I’d like to see not just Pirates fans but all South African football supporters turn up to help us at the Orlando Stadium.

“We have to put up a performance to match the support. We’ve got to do the right thing, play football. The result will come.

“Wouldn’t it be great to have us AND Kaizer Chiefs playing in the Champions League next season?”

BOLLOCKZ! my show on every Thursday from 10am-noon. See the Ballz channel on Youtube for our growing collection of interviews

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal & Pray” column every Tuesday in

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Why Pirates MUST win on Sunday - the African Champions League Group A permutations are all here

Final fling: For Roger de Sa's Pirates

ORLANDO PIRATES looked so comfortable at the halfway stage in Group A of the African Champions League it appeared they couldn’t fail to reach the semi-finals, with real hopes of a second star growing.

It was an incredible start for Roger de Sa’s Buccaneers, having garnered SEVEN points in their first three games with a mediocre draw against Congo’s first-time champions AC Leopards in Orlando followed by two incredible wins against Egyptian giants Al Ahly 3-0 away and Zamalek 4-1 at home.

Sadly, things have gone badly wrong since those heady days. Saturday’s 1-0 defeat on a cabbage patch in Dolisie comes after the 1-2 Al-Gouna reverse against Al Ahly. And with one game to play - against African champions Al Ahly at Orlando on Sunday - they STILL have just those seven points.

De Sa, with distant memories of those early qualifying wins over Zanaco and TP Mazembe now fading, remains defiant: “Look, we finish against Al Ahly on Sunday on a proper pitch, where we will get to play some football. And the message is: All is not lost. We are still in this.

“It was always going to be tough – the conditions weren’t good. You saw the pitch and what you see on TV is far from what we actually experience.

“We’re disappointed to lose but it was very trying. We attempted to string some passes together on a very bumpy pitch but it wasn’t easy, the plan had to be changed. We had to adapt as best we could. My boys did their best - you can’t fault them for effort.”

And with Sunday’s Egyptian derby producing a 4-2 defeat for reigning African champions Al Ahly over Zamalek behind closed doors, the permutations in Group A appear incredibly complicated with Pirates and Leopards both on seven points, three behind the Al Ahly.

But the simple truth is this: Pirates MUST win against Al Ahly on Sunday to qualify for the semi-finals. That guarantees a place in the last four, no matter what Leopards do against the now hopeless Zamalek in Egypt (the games are supposed to kick off simultaneously).

Similarly, a defeat against Al Ahly in Orlando puts Pirates OUT, even if Leopards LOSE at Zamalek – because the Congolese have a better head-to-head record against the Sea Robbers, having drawn with them away and beaten them at home.

The most complicated scenario for Pirates involves a draw. That will also put them out – unless Leopards lose their final match. A win puts the Congo champions through on points in second place, a draw puts them through on head-to-head against Pirates.

The background to all this is complicated, because the CAF Champions League uses a head-to-head system ahead of goal difference as their primary discriminator.

For instance, the Pirates win scenario could leave THREE sides tied on ten points if Leopards win too. But because Leopards are better than Pirates on head-to-head and Al Ahly have the advantage over Leopards but not Pirates, the top three would then form a mini-league with Roger’s men on top with seven points. Al Ahly would have 6, Leopards 4 with results against Zamalek ignored.

A three-team mini-league would also put Pirates out if they lose and Zamalec win, allowing AC Leopards to qualify.

If Pirates top the group with a final win, they will play Cameroon’s Coton Sport, who finished second in Group B after a 0-0 draw at Sewe San Pedro in the Ivory Coast. Tunisia’s Esperance, ACL finalists last year, top the group after beating Angola’s Recreativo Libolo – who put Pirates out last year - 3-2.

Group A
AL AHLY (EGYPT, holders)

Group B


I have asked Roger de Sa if he will appear on BOLLOCKZ! my show on this week, it airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. 

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal & Pray” column every Tuesday in

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

One mediocre question for Mike Makaab: Who best represents the future of South African football: Thabo Nthethe, 28 or Siyanda Xulu, 21?

Getting shirty: ProSport International CEO Mike Makaab

MEDIOCRE. Definition: Moderate in quality; ordinary. See synonyms at AVERAGE.

[French médiocre, from Latin mediocris : medius, middle; see medhyo]

Thank you Mr Dick Shunary. So when I said last Saturday that I was shocked the “mediocre Thabo Nthethe” had been selected to play for South Africa ahead of Siyanda Xulu, I was a little miffed when THIS turned up, publicly on my twitter  timeline from Mike Makaab: “I'm surprised at your comment about Nthethe Neal!”

Yup, five days after the event, Makaab chose to chew me out because I’d described Nthethe as average. Born in Bloemfontein, the 28-year-old is a seasoned PSL defender for Bloemfontein Celtic with 15 caps for Bafana Bafana. I have no beef with Makaab’s client or his enduring role with the Siwelele.

I explained the tweet was aimed not at damaging Nthethe but to illustrate my surprise at the decision not to use Siyanda Xulu at centre-back, given that – like the controversially expelled Thulani Serero – he had been flown in (business class, at a cost of over R60,000) from Russia for what might have been a vital World Cup qualifier against Botswana.

Against Nigeria, the centre-back pairing of Nthethe and Tower Mathoho had been picked apart. Xulu hadn’t even had a call from Bafana for that high-powered Madiba birthday friendly, I spoke to him on my Ballz radio football show BOLLOCKZ and Siyanda was mystified by the lack of contact.

Xulu is 21, he moved from Mamelodi Sundowns to FC Rostov last year. At the end of last season he was voted man of the match twice as his unfashionable riverside outfit survived relegation in the high-powered Russian League.

This season, Rostov are sharing second place and a month ago Xulu marked the world’s best-paid player Samuel Eto’o out of the game in a 1-0 win over Anzhi Makhachkala, the oil-rich giants from Dagestan.

Xulu told me how “Sam looked a bit frustrated about not getting a goal” and was roundly praised for his performance in a match which ultimately led to the dismantling of Anzhi’s multi-billion structure and the departure – on a free transfer – of Eto’o to Chelsea last month.

So when Xulu arrived in Durban to find he was consigned to the bench (along with Kamohelo Mokotjo, 22, from Dutch Eredivisie leaders PEC Zwolle) I was fairly surprised. Hence the "mediocre" tweet.

Curiously, Makaab’s ProSport International clients featured. Nthethe - whose Celtic have conceded 10 goals in four games this season - and goal-scorer Bernard Parker both took their places in the side with Parker captaining a VERY mediocre Bafana against Zimbabwe four days later.

Makaab, still in public on my timeline, then pointed out that Andile Jali, another of his clients, was also omitted from the starting line-up. But of course, the Orlando Pirates midfielder came on as a substitute, neatly fulfilling the needs of any player hoping for a move to the UK, where work permits are only handed to those who have played 80 percent of their nation’s competitive fixtures.

And I remember my surprise when Gordon Igesund, another of Makaab’s clients, picked Thamsanqa Gabuza from Golden Arrows for his first squad to play Brazil last year. And there was another of his men, Thanduyise Khuboni from the same club, who appeared a permanent fixture for Bafana during Pitso Mosimane’s turbulent reign.

Unfazed by this apparent good fortune, Makaab - who I respected as a player, coach and agent until this point - then asked me: “Are you suggesting something about selection of the team? You say you're not afraid to speak, so say it - I have nothing to hide.”

 So there it is. Makaab himself has asked the question: does South Africa’s biggest agent play a part in the selection of the Bafana Bafana team? I made no such suggestion. I would never dream of doing so having supporting Gordon Igesund throughout his topsy-turvy, mandate-mangling reign in charge of our beloved Bafana.

Igesund has enough problems on his hands without his agent getting involved in “putting journalists right” for passing mild opinions.

My question (and one you should feel free to answer on or by commenting below) is this: Does the future of Bafana revolve around the 28-year-old Nthethe from Bloemfontein Celtic or the 21-year-old Xulu in Russia?

I think I know the answer to that one.

I have asked Mike if he will appear on BOLLOCKZ! my show on this week, it airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. He has my number. 

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal & Pray” column every Tuesday

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Thulani Serero: the other side of Bafanagate: "I would never turn my back on my country"

Thulani Serero, right, with his agent Mike Ntombela,
the former Mamelodi Sundowns star


"I will never turn my back on my country. I’m what I am today because of the continued support I get from various people in South Africa.

"I would not have travelled to Durban from Holland if I did not want to play. The truth of the matter is that I started feeling an excruciating pain after Wednesday’s training.

“Later in the evening, I went to coach Gordon to explain to him that I suspected my niggling groin problem was coming back. It was the same pain I felt when I was out of action for several months last year.

"I love South Africa and will always be available to play for Bafana Bafana. I also do not choose games.

"I will never do such a thing. I have played for Bafana in the past ahead of Champions League games. The other thing is: I’m not the coach, so there is no guarantee I will play."

The question neither Ntombela nor Serero address in this prepared statement is: Will Thulani return home to tell Ajax he felt "excruciating pain" while training in Durban, thus risking his place against Barcelona on September 18? 

I have asked former Mamelodi Sundowns star Mike Ntombela if he or Thulani Serero will appear on BOLLOCKZ! my show on this week, it airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. 

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal & Pray” column every Tuesday

BOLLOCKZ! is backed by - have a look at their site for my latest sports betting advice!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Thulani Serero: putting Barcelona ahead of Botswana... and upsetting a lot of people

Going Dutch: Serero and Ajax Amsterdam boss Frank De Boer

Next Wednesday night Thulani Serero, a 23-year-old Sowetan with useful feet, is due to play at the Nou Camp for Ajax Amsterdam in their opening Champions League showdown against mighty Barcelona in front of a capacity crowd of 99,786 people.

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 this week, it airs every Thursday from 10am-noon. 

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news… and read my “Neal & Pray” column every Tuesday

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