Wednesday, 31 December 2014

AFCON 2015 special: Farewell Thulani Serero, good luck Shakes Mashaba, the complete guide to South Africa's January jaunt

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Ready for action: Soccer Laduma's Joe Crann's take on Bafana
SO Ephraim Mashaba has added Thulani Serero, the world class Ajax Amsterdam midfielder, to his growing list of unwanted players, though he failed to explain exactly WHY when he announced his final squad for AFCON 2015.

With Serero joining May Mahlangu, Ayanda Patosi and Kamahelo Mokotjo in the list of foreign players not needed for Equatorial Guinea. the storm clouds are brewing for Shakes, who has had his job as South Africa's head coach terminated due to ignoring the big-name foreign stars before.

Personally, I think it's madness (and may have something to do with Serero turning up in South Africa but failing to rush straight to the Bafana Boxing Day camp) but Mashaba got through qualifying - with Serero - unbeaten and top of Group A ahead of the reigning African champions Nigeria. So the criticism button is on mute, We have to stick to the "Shakes knows best" hashtag for now.

But forget all that. Apart from the absence of Kaizer Chiefs central defender Tefu Mashamaite, I understand the Mashaba attitude to players he considers unpatriotic for putting their European careers ahead of national pride.

It's worth noting the average age of this Bafana squad is 25.3, less than a year younger than Gordon Igesund's 23 (26.2) at AFCON 2013 on home soil. EIGHT players survive from two years ago - Bernard Parker, Yeye, Matlaba, Ngcongca, captain Furman, Rantie, Manyisa and Phala.

But what happens next for Bafana Bafana, now that they have finally qualified for an on-off Afcon shifted from Morocco to Equatorial Guinea due to the threat of ebola and (some say) poor ticket sales?

With the PSL on hold until February 10 the next big step is the friendly against Zambia the Orlando Stadium on Sunday.

OFFICIAL: the final 23 names for AFCON 2015
The 2012 AFCON champions finished second in their qualifying group behind Cape Verde but are the ‘pot one’ representatives in Group B for Equatorial Guinea. I’d imagine Shakes will experiment a little in his final preparation on home soil, resting the foreign players, trying a few combinations in the midfield and up front with Andile Jali’s knee, Yeye's post-Nigeria suspension and Tokelo Rantie’s shoulder all worth considering.

The squad will then fly to Gabon, west and south of tiny Equatorial Guinea, where they will play a friendly against Mali – in Group D for AFCON – before their final warm-up against Cameroon – also in Group D - in the capital Libreville.

From there, they head to Mongomo, a tiny city of 7,000 souls right on the border with Gabon, which gave rise to current President Teodoro Obiang, who has ruled the nation since erm… 1979. Given the local dictator was born in the region, much has been done at the local stadium, known as  Estadio Santiago Nguema Eneme, with the capacity raised from 5000 to 15000.

Spanish pitch experts IberGreen claim to have relaid the dodgy surface in “record time” over the weekend, though it might still be a problem when they host the Group of Death, as South Africa’s gang of four in Equatorial Guinea will soon find out.

So how does the AFCON 2015 schedule look? First up: the opening ceremony in the Bata Stadium on Saturday, 17 January, starting at 4pm CAT, which will be followed by the opening game between the hosts and Burkina Faso an hour later.

On Monday, January 19, Bafana Bafana face what will be the toughest test of this tournament: Algeria in Mongomo, at 8pm. The Algerians, impressive during the World Cup, are now Africa’s top ranked side and with a FIFA ranking of 15, their gathering of French-born, French-bred professionals may not be household names around the world but they are a seriously efficient outfit.

On Friday, January 23, it’s Senegal with their array of foreign-based stars, including Newcastle’s Papisse Cisse, kicking off at 8pm.

On Tuesday, January 27, South Africa play Ghana at Mongomo at 7pm. Though former Chelsea boss Avram Grant has ditched some of the great names – Muntari, Essien and Boateng – they remain a potent force with Asamoah Gyan apparently back in favour. As I’ve explained below, this is by far the toughest group in the tournament. South Africa will do well to come away with anything from those three African giants.

If Shakes and his boys surpass all expectations and finish in the top two in Group C, they go to the quarter-finals in Bata or the capital Malabo on Saturday, January 31 or Sunday, Febuary 1.

The semi-finals take place on Wednesday February 4 or Thursday, February 4 at the same two venues.

And finally, the final at the Bata Stadium on Sunday, February 8, though the third-place play-off is on Saturday, February 7 at Malabo.

Phew. Sadly, few South Africans will be there to enjoy the action live. SAFA sent me the Champion Tours itinerary for Equatorial Guinea. Just watching the group games would set me back a cool R82500 but that rises to R145000 if Bafana Bafana go all the way to the final. Guess I’ll have to sell the family jewels to get there.

Given the draw, South Africa will do well to get more than a couple of points in Equatorial Guinea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen luckier hosts and less fortunate South Africans – and I’ve covered a lot of them, rugby, cricket, football. But nothing quite like how this tournament panned out.

Below, I’ve given current FIFA rankings in an attempt to highlight just how hard it will be for Bafana Bafana. The easiest team in South Africa’s Group C (Senegal, 41) are way tougher than the hardest team in the hosts’ GroupA (Congo, 62) and it’s surely not by chance.

This is how the groups breakdown:
Equatorial Guinea 125
Burkina Faso 71
Gabon 67
Congo 62
TOTAL: 325

Zambia 78
Tunisia 31
Cape Verde 33
DR Congo 60
TOTAL: 202

Ghana 35
Algeria 15
South Africa 57
Senegal 41
TOTAL: 148

Ivory Coast 25
Mali 58
Cameroon 40
Guinea 55
TOTAL: 178

Unbelievable draw that. Still, having been quoted the price of a family car to make the trip, it’s unlikely I’ll be remonstrating personally with Presidents Obiang or Hayatou. Just as well I guess.

Good luck Shakes Mashaba. As I’ve said all along, you’ll need it.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

WAS THE AFCON 2015 DRAW FIXED? Hosts Equatorial Guinea couldn't be any luckier. South Africa get the Group of Death. STATISTICALLY IMPROBABLE!

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I SPENT yesterday going through the AFCON 2015 draw, held amid much hoopla in Malaba on December 3. Going on statistics alone, looking at how the balls came out of the pots, I can only conclude the whole thing was FIXED.

Look, I know Equatorial Guinea came to the rescue when Morocco insisted they could not host the tournament due to the Ebola outbreak – though the Moroccans did successfully hold the World Club Cup this month.

So the emergency hosts deserve some credit, despite being suspended for fielding ineligible players during qualifying. Thing is, we all know Equatorial Guinea is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with a huge oil-driven economy which utterly fails to look after the ordinary folk.

Some statistical back up: Equatorial Guinea is the richest nation per capita in Africa since oil was “discovered” in 1995, but less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water and 20% of their children die before reaching five.

That’s why this tiny nation was able to step in and host the event at such short notice. If Africa's longest-serving leader President Theodoro Obiang, who has ruled for 35 years (that’s longer than Robert Mugabe), wants something, he gets it. Whether his people are concerned about contagious diseases or not.

When he took power in 1979 he had Macias Nguema, the previous president, executed. And with a personal fortune of $600m thanks to contributions from the likes of petro-giant Exxon, it was hardly surprising CAF decided to lift the nation’s suspension and move AFCON to his fiefdom, where Obiang has survived 12 coup attempts.

But the nation capable of fielding a team of players ALL born in foreign nations surely have enough advantages at AFCON when it kicks off on January 15. They should have been ready to hold a fair draw, having not had to play qualifiers due to suspension.

Even the most cursory analysis of how the cookie crumbled suggests collusion. And when you factor in the current FIFA rankings and add them up, the inequality of the “random” draw is staggering. STATISTICALLY IMPROBABLE is the best word I can think of.

My interest here is this: while Equatorial Guinea were enjoying all the luck of the draw, South Africa – after topping Group A in qualifying and putting out the reigning champions Nigeria – were handed all the BAD LUCK in the world, having refused to risk hosting the tournament themselves.

Now that can’t be just luck. The Francophile nations and CAF president Issa Hayatou resent us enough already but look at those pots: in every instance, Equatorial Guinea got the weakest team, South Africa the toughest.

Sure, our hosts occupy a nation two thousand square kilometres smaller than Lesotho, but they don’t deserve a crooked helping hand from Hayatou and his cohorts, so firmly entrenched at CAF. Despite his nation being suspended and in footballing chaos at times, the 68-year-old Cameroonian has been in charge of African football since 1988, before Nelson Mandela was released. 26 years is a helluva long time in football, just ask Sepp Blatter.

Now look at those seeding “pots”. As hosts, Equatorial Guinea were put in Pot 1 for the top-seeded teams. But that’s misleading. Algeria (or Little France as they are now known, with most stars born and coached in France) are the top side in Africa right now, but found themselves in Pot 2. Ghana were the ones to avoid in Pot 1.

And yes, South Africa got Ghana, rather than the less intimidating 2012 champions Zambia or Burkina Faso. For some inexplicable reason, Burkina Faso found themselves in the same group as the hosts, despite being in the same pot.

In Pot 2, South Africa’s Group C were lumbered with the team everyone was hoping to avoid, Algeria while Group A got NONE of those dangerous nations like Ivory Coast, Mali or Tunisia.

Instead, Equatorial Guinea got Gabon from South Africa’s Pot 3 while unbeaten Bafana Bafana were landed with the most dangerous nation in Pot 4, Senegal.

Confused? We all were. Suffice to say Equatorial Guinea’s STRONGEST opponents are Congo, ranked 62 in the world by FIFA right now. South Africa’s WEAKEST opponents are Senegal, ranked 41 in the world and responsible for the qualifying failure of seven-time winners Egypt in qualifying.

Statistically improbable. That’s the phrase we’ll have to use. It would have been IMPOSSIBLE for Equatorial Guinea to have had an easier group. South Africa’s GROUP OF DEATH could not have been any harder.

Now I remember during the World Cup in 2010 when Argentina’s legendary Diego Maradona alleged that “warmed balls” were used in some draws to ensure the big bosses got the groups and fixtures they wanted. I always wondered if it was possible to conjure up a fixed draw in the glare of the television cameras. I can think of no other explanation for the utter improbability of this particular set of groupings.

I warned before the draw that Bafana Bafana, disliked both on and off the field in the north of the continent, would get the thin end of the wedge. Below you can see just how thin that wedge is.

By adding the four FIFA rankings of each of the nations in each group, it’s possible to see just how strong they are. The higher the score, the easier the group. The totals are self-evident.  

Equatorial Guinea’s Group A totals 325. That’s TWICE as much as the Group of Death. And way more than Group B or Group D. See for yourself:

Equatorial Guinea 125
Burkina Faso 71
Gabon 67
Congo 62
TOTAL: 325

Zambia 78
Tunisia 31
Cape Verde 33
DR Congo 60
TOTAL: 202

Ghana 35
Algeria 15
South Africa 57
Senegal 41
TOTAL: 148

Ivory Coast 25
Mali 58
Cameroon 40
Guinea 55
TOTAL: 178

I’ve seen many draws in my life-time. And not just in football. Often the home team or the favoured association find themselves in a good position. But this draw is a step too far for me. Clearly, something is amiss.

Still, having been quoted R145,000 to join Bafana for all their games in Equatorial Guinea in January, it’s unlikely I’ll be remonstrating personally with Presidents Obiang or Hayatou. Just as well I guess.

Good luck Shakes Mashaba. As I said in my last entry, you may need it.

Friday, 19 December 2014

We come to praise Shakes, not to bury him: but questions need to be asked about that Bafana Bafana squad!

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Unbeaten: Bafana Bafana boss Shakes Mashaba


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
My problems with the squad are no secret. I've been blocked by the Bafana Bafana twitter account and accused of treason by ardent South Africans, but the right to ask questions remains.

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.


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.

We have that "Eurocentric" midfield of Furman (whose stuttering Doncaster Rovers career will be finished by AFCON, methinks) and Jali with Patosi and Serero (whose absence at Ajax Amsterdam was heavily lamented by Frank de Boer today). Parker and David Zulu or Bongani Ndulula will probably start up front with last season's PSL player of the year Sbu Vilakazi an impact substitute.

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.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Reconciliation day for KINGSTON NKHATHA and the Kaizer Chiefs boo boys: Baxter keeps the runaway train firmly on track

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Kingston the first: Nkhatha and Parker celebrate the opening goal
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THERE are days in every footballer’s life when things go according to plan. They are not to be sniffed at in a career where Madam Fortune can mess you up in a moment.

Kaizer Chiefs striker Kingston Nkhatha had one of those days at the soggy Peter Mokabe Stadium this afternoon. With his faithful coach Stuart Baxter putting his career on the line to defend the 29-year-old Zimbabwean from booing “fans”, Nkhatha back-heeled his second goal of the season in the 35th minute to ease the pressure all round.

And it was Nkhatha who produced the cross for Siya Nkosi’s second goal as the AmaKhosi went on to beat a lively Free State Stars 2-1 to equal the record of 17 games unbeaten set by arch-rivals Orlando Pirates. Chiefs are currently 16 points clear in a footballing world where only Bayern Munich, nine ahead in the Bundesliga, can hold a candle to Baxter’s men.

That’s why Nkhatha’s goal – amid a typically hard-working performance against a side playing well above their normal relegation-threatened level – was so important. Baxter had come out publicly (see my two previous posts) and said he would quit if the booing of his striker didn’t stop.

That was a significant step to take. A brave one, especially when you’re on top of the world. And Nkhatha repaid the debt in full. As he held the Man of the Match award tightly afterwards, the typically modest Kingston said: “This is a team award. We are always telling each other: keep pushing. That is what we do.”

Baxter, his jubilation marred only slightly by Tower Mathoho’s late own goal, said: “I work with Kingston, he knows I've got confidence in him. It was nice to see Nkatha going to his team-mates, they feel for him.

“That sort of camaraderie sees us through the storm. We can beat any team is this league but any team can beat us. If we don’t prepare properly for every game, we’ll be stepping on a landmine."

Baxter has been tip-toeing around landmines ever since he arrived back in South Africa 30 months ago. He started with an awful 4-1 defeat against Mamelodi Sundowns in the MTN8 and a storm over his CV. But he went on to become the first foreign coach to win the PSL in his first season, was 11 points clear last season before a cataclysmic collapse let Sundowns in to snatch the title.

This season, with Knowledge Musona walking away and Bernard Parker recovering from ankle surgery, he has had to rely on Nkhatha to lead the line. Incredibly, Chiefs won their first 8 League games…took R1.5 million for Q1 and the R8m MTN8 trophy. Miraculous stuff.

Take that: Nkhatha's back heel beats Verbauwhede
But even as he produced another footballing miracle, Baxter came under pressure for his continual selection of Nkhatha.

We don’t see the lads in training. We don’t see the tactics on the board. We don’t appreciate the genius involved in going 17 games unbeaten when your strikers have scored five goals between them.

But the boo boys let rip anyway, and Baxter decried his errant fans, particularly in Polokwane, as “idiots”. It wasn’t clever. Heat of the moment stuff. I told Stuart he should apologise on Sunday. Baxter refused. He took me back to his school days, remembering when his father Bill was over-looked for the Aston Villa job in England: “It’s all about respect, Neal” he said “This team deserves that respect. My players deserve respect. Kingston deserves respect. I will not accept the booing of my players when we are top of the league.”

And with that stance, Baxter went in to yesterday’s game at a venue he doesn’t enjoy. He stuck with Nkhatha. He was without his defensive midfield talisman Willard Katsande (who has just SMSed me to say he’ll be back at the weekend after a stomach muscle injury) and the suspended pair George Maluleka and Morgan Gould.

To win despite those changes, to have Nkhatha score, pick up his sixth assist of the season AND win Man of the Match, to triumph against a Free State Stars raising their game for Chiefs, was little short of a fairy tale. Amid torrential rainfall, they defied the conditions on the same pitch where in-form Polokwane City had crumbled against struggling AmaTuks and lost 5-1. Incredible.

By my calculations, including the two games they didn’t lose at the tail-end of last season, Kaizer Chiefs are now NINETEEN unbeaten in the PSL. If you include their four-match MTN8 triumph and a penalty-shoot out defeat in the second game of the Telkom KO (which counts, statistically, as a draw) plus the second African Champions League game against AS Vita last season, I make it 28 games unbeaten.

Can anybody, anywhere match this at the moment? Yet there was Baxter afterwards, cheerfully telling Carol Tshabalala: “We are not finishing off games that are there for the taking. We have to improve on that. There is work to be done.”

This morning a relieved Baxter said: "It seems what happened on Saturday helped. That small section (we had trouble with) tried to cheer Kingston tonight, whatever happened on the field.

"They supported him even when he missed. The atmosphere was brilliant and Kingston deservedly won the Man of the Match award."

Amazing. And there are people out there who say Baxter can go if he doesn’t like the boo-boys. Look back on this day, AmaKhosi fans. And realise just how good it is to support a side capable of invincibility. No side has ever gone through a PSL season unbeaten. The record is two defeats. Chiefs are more than halfway there. Five more wins out of 13 should do it.

My teams Arsenal and Amazulu can only dream of such heights. Forever Fearless. The train is on track. And Baxter is in the driving seat. He deserves a little more respect.

Monday, 15 December 2014

BOOGATE EXCLUSIVE: Baxter is SERIOUS about those Kaizer Chiefs quit threats: It's all about respect for South Africa's No1 coach

If you're a football journalist reading this, feel free to lift quotes... but please credit me.

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Deadly serious: Baxter could quit over Nkhatha's treatment


AS BOOGATE broke across the internet on Sunday after Stuart Baxter's astonishing post-match interview in Polokwane on Saturday night, the real question became clear: was the coach of unbeaten runaway leaders Kaizer Chiefs REALLY threatening to quit over the booing of non-scoring striker Kingston Nkhatha?

It certainly sounded that way (see previous post), and I wasn't comfortable going along that line without speaking to Stuart himself. I started off on the wrong foot with him nearly three years ago, questioning his CV and commitment.

I was badly wrong and said so, we enjoyed a very public apology and reconciliation (google it, it's on YouTube). Today, in a PSL where NINE of the 16 coaches have already shifted hot-seats this season (I broke the story of Ernst Middendorp's departure from Bloemfontein Celtic last night), Baxter is, by some margin, the longest surviving boss. He's finished first and second in two seasons and is now top of the PSL by 13 points, uneaten in 16 games, eager to set up an academy system at Naturena and has never been more successful.

We get on well. There is a common bond, two Englishmen loving the new South Africa, eager to put our football up where it belongs; developing talent, exposing dodgy practices and putting our cards on the table even when it hurts.

Baxter should be the most secure man in football management WORLD WIDE given his current record. No other league globally offers unbeaten leaders 13 points clear as we near the halfway point of the season. But a long chat on on Sunday afternoon did little to dispel the feeling that Baxter will NOT BACK DOWN over Nkhatha's treatement by "an idiotic minority" of the AmaKhosi - and other issues to do with respect at the club.

Baxter to the future: Stuart and me
I cannot reveal all that was said between us, Suffice to say the conversation came close to the chats I used to have with Roger de Sa when he was reaching cup final after cup final at Orlando Pirates and surviving serious African Champions League challenges.

But like Roger, Stuart is not comfortable with much that is going on around him. He should be, but he isn't. Too much "bullshit", too many "sinister forces" - though he insists team selection, if not player recruitment, remains ENTIRELY in his hands.

There are issues over how his squad is treated, over what his players are expected to do before vital games, about how his advice is treated by officials at Kaizer Chiefs.

Baxter has compiled expert documentation on pre-match preparation - just being on your feet and travelling on a bus can impact on performance - and a guide to how a young player should grow up from 13 if he wants to become a top professional in the gold-and-black. But he feels that guidance - and the academy he was hoping to restore to glory after age-cheating scandals four years ago - is going nowhere.

The word that crops up again and again is RESPECT. Respect is everything to the man from Wolverhampton, who grew up in a football family (he remembers vividly when his dad Bill was over-looked for the Aston Villa hot-seat, he walked away rather than taking a job for life at the club) and has plied his trade all over the world.

Any doubts about his willingness to quit over Nkhatha's treatment are quickly dispelled: “I stand by what I said. If people boo my players, if they won’t respect their own team, I will be forced to leave Kaizer Chiefs.”

Baxter, who used the word “idiots” to describe those booing Zimbabwean Nkhatha, 29, after the 1-0 win over Chippa United at Polokwane on Saturday, said: “It sounded like a threat to resign? It was meant to sound like that. Honestly Neal, use this as you want. I’m in a pretty strong position at the moment.

“We’ve tried everything. Appeals to the crowd, campaigns, posters. The team don’t look forward to playing in Polokwane. That’s what it is at the moment. I won't apologise for using the word idiots. It was said in the heat of the moment but it applies to those who boo their own player.

“If you don’t respect the players, you may lose the coach. Is that over the top? Probably. The sensible ones have to pull them in line, there were a few telling them to be quiet.

“There’s an element in there, Kingston plays well, can’t buy a goal. Why? He’s strong but he isn’t deaf. He’s s****ing himself everytime he’s in a scoring position. I’ve just watched Sunderland West Ham, 1-1, Jozi Altidor (USA international) has a chance the same as Kingston’s, falls over himself, misses.

“He cost them a packet with that miss on Saturday. Is there booing? Insulting behaviour? No. Supporter is the term. It contains the word SUPPORT. Not a slaughterer, a supporter. I can tell you without fear of contradiction: KINGSTON DOES NOT DESERVE TO BE BOOED. He’s a great lad, hard-working, a real team player."

Baxter agrees Nkatha's return of one goal this season is not acceptable. But he insists Kingston remains the best choice for his all-conquering Chiefs this season. He understands questioning of his selection processes, but refuses to accept "home" fans at the Peter Mokabe booing their own - and it's not just Nkhatha who suffers.

Baxter, choosing his words carefully, says: “Look, when I say idiots, it’s a minority. I could see many of the real supporters telling them to stop it. Most of the real AmaKhosi. What I can’t accept is these others, they just don’t get it. They don’t understand the damage they’re doing by targeting a player.

“It’s not just a boo when they make a mistake, it’s constant targeting of a player, it brings down confidence, affects the WHOLE TEAM. Even when they’re warming up in Polokwane, the substitutes are getting abuse.

“It’s my job to protect my players. I have to speak out. It’s my job. Some people love this, will use it to destabilise my side. But if they don’t  get it when I’ve won 16 games on the trot. In the African Champions League they will intimidate the opposition, not their own players. We will travel north facing plenty of booing from the opposition fans. That's how football SHOULD be.

“If people can’t respect what I say, then so be it. I have adapted to South Africa, just like I did in Scandinavia, the USA, Japan. My style of management here is very different to what it was in Sweden or Finland, Japan or England. I can put up with a lot. But if they carry on booing, that’s it. I will go.”

With a double-header to come in Polokwane - soon to be known as Booburg - tomorrow, Baxter will be listening. His table-toppers play Free State Stars at 6pm after the Reconciliation Day opener between the real home team, Polokwane City and AmaTuks at 3pm.

If the boo-boys go for Nkhatha again, Baxter will not back down. At the very least, he will demand an end to "home" games in Polokwane. At worst, he could even walk away. The idiots have been warned. If you are REALLY an AmaKhosi fan, back Nkhatha. Back your runaway PSL leaders. Or risk losing everything.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

I'VE GOT TO MAKE A DECISION: unbeaten Stuart Baxter on the boo boys at Kaizer Chiefs

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ONE GOAL: Kaizer Chiefs striker Kingston "Boo" Nkhatha
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STUART BAXTER’S post-match interview was chilling. Much more than a simple rant. Nobody else appears to have picked up the full impact of his frustration with the Kaizer Chiefs boo boys in Polokwane. Here it is, word for word:

“I’ll be very honest, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of it. I’ve got to make a decision. Do I want to continue working at a club where you don’t know if your best players are going to be depressed because of some idiots in the crowd?

“I’ve got to make a decision. And maybe that decision is: I DON’T WANT TO DO IT."

Yes, a threat to quit, moments after Saturday’s 1-0 win over Chippa United at the Peter Mokabe Stadium a venue where, he admits: “I don’t like coming.”

And this from a man who had just recorded his 16th League game undefeated. Shocking … but not unprecedented.

In March, when Chiefs looked like they were going to walk away with a second successive title, Baxter said much the same after his non-scoring striker Kingston Nkhatha was – once again - booed in Polokwane.

I spoke to him after that initial outburst. Go google my name and his to find the details, the video, the frustration. And we’re right back there. A coach who should be cockahoop after the strongest possible start to the season finds himself bewildered by his club’s ungrateful fans, or “idiots” in his words.

The AmaKhosi have a point of course. Fans always do. On Saturday, Nkhatha had at least two excellent chances to add to the solitary goal he’s managed all season. They all went straight to the keeper. Bernard Parker, the PSL’s Golden Boot with just 10 last season, scored the winner, bringing his tally to a meagre three.

Kaizer Chiefs have gone surging further ahead than ANY other club in world football right now with the minimum of goals and the minimum of fuss. Their crusade has been based around goals from midfield (George Lebese and Reneilwe Letsholonyane have both scored 5, Mandla Masango has 4) with the occasional vital contribution from their centre-backs at set-pieces.

A serious boos problem: Nkhatha and Baxter
It’s not the most attractive style. But, by George, it works. In effect, Baxter has been verging on the controversial Spain formation with the “false No 9”. At Euro 2012, Vicente del Bosque discarded Fernando Torres for Cesc Fabregas and confounded the opposing centre-halves looking to mark the out-and-out scorer.

In truth, Nkhatha is the spearhead, but often he is tracking back, making the early challenge from the long ball, while Parker – who hadn’t scored AT ALL until his brace against Bidvest Wits a fortnight ago – lurks in peripheral areas, only recently breaking in to the box with the late run.

All of which leaves the two Georges – Lebese and Maluleka – with Masango, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Yeye to score from wide or deep and extend the apparently endless unbeaten run.

Chelsea, whose own run in the English Premier League ended against Newcastle a week ago, wouldn’t dare to try such a system without Diego Costa. Real Madrid, with 20 wins on the trot, rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to break records. Bayern Munich have Mario Götze. Barcelona have Luis Suarez when Lionel Messi and Neymar Junior don’t weigh in.

But Kaizer Chiefs have Nkhatha. A 29-year-old Zimbabwean warhorse who has NEVER been prolific in a career going back to his 41 games and just FIVE goals for Free State Stars between 2007 and 2011.

Chiefs haven’t scored a lot. 24 in 16 unbeaten games is a remarkably miserly tally for our runaway PSL leaders. It would barely get them in the top five in Spain, England or Germany. But add their MTN8 triumph and the Telkom KO “draw” (they were eliminated on penalties by Platinum Stars) and they haven’t lost in 22 games this season.

That form is unquestionable. Indisputable. You can understand why Baxter gets so frustrated. Having won the PSL in his opening season – a first for a foreign coach in South Africa – they finished second last season after a remarkable collapse with the injured Parker losing his scoring boots.

This season, with the African Champions League campaign looming, Baxter has had to make do without star goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune – back on the bench for the first time since early September on Saturday – and expensive striker Katlego “Killer” Mphela. And he has surpassed all expectations.

But still the AmaKhosi boo. Especially in that far northern outpost Polokwane, a home from home for the Chiefs.

Baxter told me: "Fans who boo their own players when we are top of the League? Who boos a player who works as hard as Nkatha? Deplorable. I don't understand it.

"My assistant Doctor Khumalo feels we should bring legends to educate the fans, but I don't see why. We go to Polokwane to show them our team, we don't go to get our players booed by our fans."

Chiefs play modest Free State Stars on Tuesday night in a bid to move their record beyond WWWWWWWWDDWDWWDW to a phenomenal SEVENTEEN unbeaten. Orlando Pirates’ unbeaten run reads DW. Think about it. Do the AmaKhosi REALLY have to boo their non-scoring striker?

Just look at Eric Tinkler’s Buccaneers. They were goalless against former boss Roger de Sa’s weakened Ajax Cape Town for 55 minutes.

Then Lennox Bacela asked to come off, and the bench panicked. For three long minutes Pirates played with ten men. And then the unthinkable happened: Kermit Erasmus came on to join Lehlohonolo Majoro. The dynamic duo I told Vladimir Vermecovic to use for months had finally come together.

Just last week, Tinkler was telling us they were “too similar to play together” but more by luck than judgement Majoro produced the first – an own goal – bouncing it in off post and the back of Finnish goalkeeper Ansi Jaakkola. Seconds later Major made it 2-0. Erasmus forced the corner converted by Siya Sangweni and then added a remarkably calm fourth himself.

In half-an-hour, Tinkler had gone from caretaker villain to pantomime hero, thanks to a tactical change which was forced upon him. Two hours after Baxter’s rant, he was telling us how crucial Erasmus’s goal was after those misses against Sundowns last week.

Not the best from a coach under pressure. Kermit’s talent was never in question, surely? Tinkler’s selection process, like VV’s is what should be under scrutiny.

Best in the world? Kaizer Chiefs after 16 games
Still, Tinkler did better than Pitso Mosimane after his reigning champions had been held 1-1 at lowly Amatuks. Sullen and sulky, he gave the post-match interview from hell.

Watching Roger de Sa after he’d been hammered by his old mate Tinkler and Sammy Troughton trying to explain his feelings on PSL referees it strikes you: our PSL coaches are dragged before the microphone too quickly. Not even an ad break and the post-match interrogation is upon them. In Europe they have a period to consider, calm down.

Perhaps that’s why Baxter, Tinkler, De Sa and Mosimane are the talking points of a fascinating weekend. My view? Coaches opinions are paramount. But that doesn’t mean the fans can’t express themselves. They pay for that privilege.

You can read my Neal and Pray column in every Tuesday. And follow me on coming on January 5? A new football show with Mark Fish. Watch this space.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Why Orlando Pirates fans SHOULD be revolting: Kaizer Chiefs the last Invincibles standing

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NOT TOO SHABBY: Siphiwe Tshabalala, scorer of the first goal on Saturday
My son is Buccaneer. He’s nine. Already the double-treble emblazoned on the front of his first Orlando Pirates shirt is starting to fade to pink. My missus is a Sea Robber too. She was hiding with the dog behind the sofa by the time Kaizer Chiefs scored their second goal in the Soweto Derby on Saturday.

To be honest, in the nicest possible way, Orlando Pirates fans are revolting. And if they’re not, they should be. They are behind promoted Chippa United and Q2 winners Polokwane City in the PSL standings as I write. The ridiculous appointment of previously failed Serbian head coach Vladimir Vermecovic is now history and caretaker Eric Tinkler needs a miracle and a few million rand to turn things around.

On the other hand, Chiefs boss Stuart Baxter will not have missed the ironic detail on Saturday afternoon. While his side were extending their unbeaten PSL start to 14 games, Chelsea’s “invincibles” were tripped up by Newcastle United.

While the AmaKhosi debated a habitually goalless Soweto Derby first half in the dressing room underneath Soccer City, Jose Mourinho’s men finally came unstuck despite Didier Drogba’s late goal.

And within seconds of the final whistle blowing on the Blues 2-1 defeat at St James’ Park 8000km north, Siphiwe Tshabalala finished Bernard Parker’s cross with a near-perfect left-foot volley to put Chiefs 1-0 ahead against Orlando Pirates.

Reneilwe Letsholonwane managed to miss from three yards before George Lebese produced the moment of the match: a low cross so good  substitute Siphelele Mthembu only needed to fall over the ball to score with his trailing leg.

And that was that. While Baxter enjoyed a FIFTH successive Soweto Derby without defeat, Chelsea were watching Manchester City close the gap at the top of the Premier League to just three points.

Baxter’s no mug. He knows reigning champions Mamelodi Sundowns are now second, waiting for the same sort of collapse which saw the AmaKhosi caught and beaten last season by some distance.

With Bidvest Wits also picking up a win over the weekend, Baxter said: "We haven’t won anything yet. Of course I’m delighted with this result but if I try and analyse, the first half was poor, for both teams.

"I thought it was too slow, there were too many mistakes and a dearth of real chances.”

In truth, NEITHER SIDE managed a shot on target in those turgid opening 45 minutes. Did Chelsea’s demise spark Baxter’s men in to action?

Baxter added: "We played fantastically well in the first 20 minutes of the second half. We could have killed the game off, 2-0, but we didn't. It's a bad habit and we let them came back at us.

DOGGED APPROACH: Soweto derby in Collins household
"You  have to take into account how big this Soweto Derby is, the boys were very nervous, they know what’s at stake in a game like this.

"But you know me. There is a long way to go. I am delighted tonight but tomorrow everything is back to normal again and we’ll be working hard."

With both Sundowns and Chiefs off to tackle the African Champions League, anything could yet happen. Gaps can disappear. What was it Tefu Mashmaite said last week: “We don’t want to talk about a lead at the top, remember what happened last year.”

But the truth is, if Chiefs beat Platinum Stars they’ll have 39 points after 15 games. With 30 to play, that means they can justifiably hope to double that to a record haul of 78, 13 better than the 65-point record set by Sundowns last season.

But what can we say about Orlando Pirates, overtaken by the likes of unfashionable Polokwane City later on Saturday evening? Caretaker Eric Tinkler, now 9th, talked about “low morale” and “lack of confidence”.

It’s hard to blame the former Barnsley and Bafana midfielder as he tries to pick up the pieces after Vladimir Vermecovic’s chaotic reign. With Mamelodi Sundowns next up tomorrow (Wednesday), Tinkler continues to tell impatient fans that Lehlohonolo Majoro and Kermit Erasmus are “too similar to play up front together” which is simply nonsense.

Truth is, VV was ALWAYS a terrible choice. Truth is, Senzo Meyiwa would have been embarrassed by recent Pirates results. Truth is, something needs to be done at Orlando.

A shorter version of this story appears in today.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

SOWETO DERBY PREVIEW: Tinkler can tinker but Kaizer Chiefs have to be favourites today

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ASSAULT AND WINNER: Willard Katsande celebrates his goal in March
LET'S get this straight. I hold no particular candle for Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. But when South Africa comes to a grinding halt to witness the umpteenth Soweto Derby at 3.30pm (Eskom load-shedding permitting) you simply CANNOT envisage the AmaKhosi's 14th PSL game this season ending in defeat.

What is not in question is THIS: the Buccaneers, 15 points behind their arch-rivals, will be significantly improved by the departure of Vladimir Vermecovic. Since the Serbian's return to South Africa in February, I have questioned his talent, his attitude and his suitability for the job, given the way he left Chiefs two years before (see original post HERE

Eric Tinkler, a nuggety little midfielder who strutted his stuff in Portugal, Italy and 78 times for England's unfashionable Barnsley, is no mug. His stint as caretaker at Pirates after Roger de Sa's departure a year ago was by no means a disaster. He will make the Sea Robbers tough to plunder today.

Tinkler could even manage to snatch the fourth draw this season against Chiefs. He knows he enjoyed Dr Irvin Khoza's backing before and after VV's arrival; he has sat in silent support of the Serbian despite erratic selection and questionable results for nine pregnable months.

But Stuart Baxter is becoming something of an expert when it comes to South Africa's biggest game of football. The largest crowd in the world (unless somebody spots an attendance of over 85,000 elsewhere this weekend) are far more likely to witness another Chiefs victory.

Wolverhampton-born Baxter was thrown to the wolves when he arrived back in South Africa, a decade after his stint with the national team. But he won the PSL title in his opening season - the first foreign coach ever to do so - and finished second to Mamelodi Sundowns last term after a worrying end-of-season collapse.

After their opening winning streak - which also featured an emphatic MTN8 triumph - steam is once more leaking from the AmaKhosi Express. Baxter is well aware of that. With the African Champions League just around the corner, he knows beating the old foe today is vital. They could end up needing every point come May, 2015 if they are to be crowned champions.

And he knows the departure of VV at Pirates could easily work against him. Baxter says: "Change can work both ways. On the one hand, it can cause instability. One the other, it can motivate them, they could gain courage."

Derby day: How the Collins household looks today
To do that, Tinkler needs to Tinker. I've said all season Pirates looked best early on when they threw former Chief Lehlohonolo Majoro up front with Kermit Erasmus in the two-pronged assault force. Lennox Bacela is not the answer, though VV seemed to think so in recent, poor efforts.

I'd be thinking about Vieira Masalesa in the midfield too and a rocket up the bottom for captain Oupa Manyisa. There was a time when I thought the pair of them worked well together under Roger De Sa on the African campaign long months ago.

At the back, with the shadow of Senzo Meyiwa's still-unsolved murder receding, Brighton Mhlongo needs help. The best four defenders in Orlando? Rooi Mahamutsa, Siya Sangweni, Happy Jele and Patrick Phungwayo, axed by VV last week. I say: play them all. A quality quartet. Thabo Matlaba can come on from the bench and run all over the place if necessary.

For Chiefs, I'd go with both Georges - Lebese and Maluleka are both capable of goals - rather than Mandla Masango, who is looking weary of late. And I wouldn't bring back Itumeleng Khune just yet, Brilliant Khuzwayo can take the heat today.

It's up front where things changed dramatically this week. Bernard Parker, who won last season's golden boot with the ten goals he scored before March this year, finally got back on the score-sheet in an impressive 3-0 triumph over a surprisingly poor Bidvest Wits in midweek.

Those two goals could just decide this derby. A confident Parker scoring means the world to club and country. This could be just the beginning, And with Tokelo Rantie diagnosed with a "partial shoulder dislocation" at Bournemouth, perhaps Bernard will enter Shakes Mashaba's thinking before January if he carries on sniffing out the goals rather than playing deep behind the much-maligned Kingston Nkhatha.

All set: Willard Katsande via SMS this morning
But there's another option. Willard Katsande. South Africa's best defensive midfielder remains the destroyer-in-chief for Baxter. Orlando Pirates fans will remember he scored his ONLY goal in a Soweto Derby in March.

Today, via SMS, he says he'll try to score another. The 28-year-old Zimbabwean is a lesson to youngsters. His work-rate, durability and improvement - he has learned to intercept rather than fly in to the tackle so effectively as Chiefs surged ahead of the pack this season - cannot be ignored.

Perhaps Salt 'n Vinegar is the difference between Chiefs and the rest this season. I believe he'll be the difference in El Kasico today. Derby's can ALWAYS go either way, but I've got to go for unbeaten Kaizer Chiefs today.

My fun team predictions? Orlando Pirates must bring back Phungwayo, loving Issa Sarr, go with TWO up... Vieira Masalesa is a big call, but here's hoping...


Kaizer Chiefs should stick with Khuzawayo one more time, and stop booing Kingston Nkhatha, given their record so far this season...


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

GOING TO POT: Why South Africa have no need to fear the AFCON draw

ON TOP OF THE PILE: Furmidable captain Dean Furman leads the Bafana celebrations
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LET'S GET ONE THING STRAIGHT. When the AFCON 2015 draw takes place in Malabo tomorrow at 8pm we should be HAPPY. Proud to see our beloved Bafana Bafana in the draw.

As I have said repeatedly, South Africa have over-achieved in the four short months since Ephraim "Cheap but Sensible" Mashaba took charge at the end of July.

We were supposed to be building for a distant World Cup. Shakes was appointed with one eye on SAFA's "VISION 2022" philosophy.

The poor bloke was hamstrung from the start, touring West Africa with his Under 20 AmaJitas when he got the job. He won the Coach of the Year award for his success with the youngsters just last week. Then he stepped in to those huge national coach shoes again... and faced the multiple onslaughts of Itumeleng Khune's injury, Ebola, Senzo's murder and various players suffering fatigue and missed flights.

But tomorrow night at 8pm, Bafana Bafana will be in the draw. Qualified without hosting. In Pot 3. And mighty Nigeria, the Super Eagles, the reigning champions, are POTLESS. Steve Keshi took it on the chin from Shakes. And is still groggy.

I spoke to our "Furmidable" captain Dean Furman yesterday. I'm planning to link up with his dad Ronnie, a dentist in London, to brave President Theodorin Obiang's bizarre nation of haves and have-nots when the tournament begins on January 18 through to the final (hopefully for Shakes) on February 8.

Dean himself knows a month in Africa will do him and the other foreign-based players little good. He came on as a sub for Doncaster Rovers, struggling in England's third flight, over the weekend. And he admits: "It does present a problem for the European players but I would do anything for my country. I love playing for Bafana Bafana. When I left Cape Town aged five, I never dreamed I would lead my country.

"I would not swap that experience for ANYTHING. I'm hoping dad will be there to watch. I've got family in Johannesburg and Cape Town who will be rooting for me too."

But so much now appears to depend on tomorrow night's draw in a nation not known for fair play - they were suspended before stepping in as emergency hosts after Morocco's Ebola-phobic withdrawal and have been known to field oil-stained national teams devoid of a single local-born player.

16 teams qualified for AFCON. Seven-time winners Egypt and champions Nigeria are just two of the big absentees, along with Ethiopia, who put Gordon Igesund's Bafana out of the World Cup in our last botched qualification attempt.

Bizarrely, with South Africa seeded in Pot 3 due to our previous failings, it's Pot 2 which contains the really tough teams. Hosts Equatorial Guinea automatically drop in to Pot 1 with Ghana, 2011 champions Zambia and Burkina Faso.

But in the second pot, THREE favourites stand out: Ivory Coast (not the team South Africa beat 2-0 in the Nelson Mandela Challenge on Sunday, the one with Yaya Toure, Wilfried Bony etc etc), Africa's top current outfit Algeria (also known as France Mark Two) and Tunisia (number two in Africa).

Using purely numerical values here are the BEST and WORST case scenarios:

Equatorial Guinea (37), Mali (10), South Africa (11) and Congo (13)

Ghana (5), Algeria (1), South Africa (11) and Senegal (4)

Equatorial Guinea (37)
Ghana (5)
Zambia (15)
Burkina Faso (18)

Pot 2
Ivory Coast (3)
Mali (10)
Tunisia (2)
Algeria (1)

Pot 3
Cape Verde (7)
South Africa (11)
Gabon (17)
DR Congo (12)

Pot 4
Cameroon (8)
Senegal (4)
Guinea (6)
Congo (13)

Still, no matter how it turns out, Mr Mashaba has assured us: "We are not just going there to make up the numbers. If anybody under-estimates South Africa, they will be made to pay for it."

And ultimately, it doesn't matter how the groups shape up. After qualifying top of Group A, South Africa may just be the team to avoid tomorrow night.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Unbeaten coach of the year Shakes Mashaba continues to confound with Bafana Bafana Mark II

Unbeaten: Bafana boss Shakes Mashaba
ON the face of it, a man who took over in late July has to be pretty fortunate to win South Africa’s coach of the year award. But not this time.

Ephraim Shakes Mashaba is that man. On Sunday night in Sandton, he was rightly awarded the ultimate coaching accolade ahead of the minority sports and, with our Proteas and Springboks currently on the beaten track, the predictable bleating from those “jobs for life” journalists echoed across the social networks.

Danny Jordaan, the SAFA president who has ushered in an era where, for once, diski/soccer/football is emerging as the pride of the nation, rightly sums up: “This has been an incredible year, we hope awards for Shakes and Portia Modise will encourage the entire football family to do even better going forward.”

Sadly, the promised arrival of a Bafana technical director and the new Nike kit has not materialised. Match-fixing, shrouded attendance figures and Senzo Meyiwa’s unsolved killing still weight heavily on our game. And as David Isaacson points out, Mashaba won coach of the year for our AmaJita Under 20s qualifying success, his Bafana Bafana revival wasn't taken in to account.

But forget all that. On the field, Mashaba continues to confound.

Fielding an entirely new team for the Nelson Mandela Challenge at Mbombela on Sunday, his Bafana Bafana Mark II simply went out and played just like the first choice outfit did in AFCON qualifying.

That’s no small feat. South Africa saw off mighty Nigeria to win Group A during a turbulent six-match saga which saw Senzo Meyiwa murdered, an Ebola outbreak, May Mahlangu banned, suspended Equatorial Guinea handed the hosting rights and key players ruled out.

Qualification ahead of the African champion Super Eagles was a considerable upset. But what Shakes came up with on Sunday takes us one step further. The arch-motivator took a whole new squad and despite cancelled training sessions and late withdrawals, created a new “bunch of winners”, to paraphrase Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.

Chippa United’s Thami Sangweni, brother of Orlando Pirates towering defender Siya, took the captain’s armband. Chippa United’s five-goal David Zulu, much talked about as a future Kaizer Chiefs striker, took his place up front next to Polokwane City’s Puleng Tlolane, the PSL’s top scorer with seven goals.

Between them, those twelve goals dwarf the tally of Mzanzi’s big guns. Kermit Erasmus and Lehlohonolo Majoro have six between them. Bernard Parker and Kingston Nkhatha at unbeaten league leaders Kaizer Chiefs have erm... even less.

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But it was the much-talked-about  Bongani Zungu from Mamelodi Sundowns who really impressed, scoring the first goal after Vuyisile Wana’s first-minute effort had been ruled out for off-side and generally getting ball to the right areas. Zulu added the richly-deserved second after half-time and it was job done for Shakes, who has now played seven, won four and drawn three.

With Mashaba in charge, the selection process appears to be secondary. The man himself confesses he is no tactical genius, “I put out 11 players and tell them to play for the nation” and boy, do they play.

This friendly, against an admittedly under-strength Ivory Coast (the Toure brothers and their big European stars had other things on their mind over the weekend), proves the point with some gusto.

Pitso Mosimane and Gordon Igesund are top South African coaches with five PSL titles between them. Last season Mosimane took Sundowns to the championship and this season Igesund has revived SuperSport United and on Saturday, he led them to that Telkom KO triumph.

But in truth, they failed to motivate the disparate band of men chosen to represent their nation. Never really got them to play for the shirt, much like the foreign millionaires before them.

I’m not sure how Shakes does it. I’m told his team-talks are the stuff of legend, invoking all kinds of semi-mythical imagery to fire up his charges.

After his seventh game without defeat, Mashaba glowed: "We needed this win to keep up the winning momentum for the nation.

"This was almost a new team, a good chance to give our fringe players an opportunity to prove themselves. We will try to get some friendlies. Really, some of these boys deserve to get a chance in Equatorial Guinea."

I have no idea how Mashaba achieves these things. But with the cricketing Proteas and rugby Springboks both failing of late, suddenly Bafana Bafana have become the reliable source of national pride in Mzanzi.

Herve Renard, the Ivory Coast coach who conquered Africa with Zambia, sums it up best: “I think 0-2 was a very good for us, the South African team was everywhere.

"I think we had two chances and it's not enough to expect something in football. It's a good lesson for our young players, who know they have a big job to do.

“Congratulations South Africa. It was too fast for us today.”