Monday, 29 September 2014

Restoring the nation's pride: AmaJimbos arrive home to a hero's welcome. The boys have become men.

FLYING HIGH: Vuyo Mantjie about to embark on his first flight
No matter how much televised football you put your family through over the past few days, you won't have seen the great success story of the weekend.

Ahead of Pirate-plundering Chippa United, perfect Kaizer Chiefs and even unbeaten Chelsea, the team of the weekend for me were the "bunch of winners" nobody in South Africa was able to watch on screen (thanks very much SABC and SuperSport): Our Under 17 AmaJimbos.

While Arsenal were concluding their 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur in the North London Derby and Stuart Baxter’s Chiefs were putting together their 11th win in 11 games to start the season at Soccer City, Molefi Ntseki’s men were at Cairo’s Contractors’ Stadium in front of 3000 passionate Egyptians trying to defend a 2-1 home advantage.

Nobody expected our youngsters, led by SuperSport United’s Nelson Maluleka who scored in the first leg at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium a fortnight ago, to qualify for the African Youth Championship in Niger next year. But then we know so little about these highly motivated lads.

Cairo king: The AmaJimbos celebrate their 2-2 draw on Saturday
I've been fortunate enough to see them in action a couple of times. In goal SuperSport's Mondli Mpoto is another Itumeleng Khune, out wide, Vuyo Mantjie from Harmony in the Free State weaves pure magic. At the back, towering Keanu Cupido holds it all together. And up front, Khayisa Mayo - son of Bafana Bafana's Patrick - will sign professionally with SuperSport United next year.

I couldn’t secure a visa for Cairo, but I've caught up with most of what happened on Saturday. Mayo scored the first goal to make it 3-1 on aggregate to the AmaJimbos. And his second goal, drawing the keeper before scoring with a neat chip, was apparently a thing of real beauty.

The Egyptians, the powerhouse of African football with all the big records at international (seven Afcons) and club level (Al Ahly and Zamalec) fought back from 2-0 down to 2-2 but were ousted 4-3 on aggregate.

Coach Molefi Ntseki and his lads had, remarkably, broken with acceptable practice. They had overcome the Pharoahs.

It has been a long road to Niger 2015 (and if they get to the African semi-finals, the U17 World Cup in Chile): It started with two friendly wins over Lesotho, then two warm-up wins in Botswana. I was there for the 0-0 draw in Tanzania when Mantjie and several of his pals took their first ever trip on a airplane to Dar Es Salaam. Then came the rousing 4-0 win at Dobsonville to open the route to Cairo.

And now, 7000kms and EIGHT unbeaten games later, Ntseki – backed by assistant coach Shawn Bishop and goalkeeping mentor Stavros Tschiclas – our Under 17s have joined the Amajitas and Banyana Banyana in qualifying for their African tournament.

Welcome home: the AmaJimbos this morning
Predictably, Ntseki is cockahoop:  “Yes, this is a good achievement and great for my CV but I am now looking beyond Niger; I want to take these boys to Chile for the World Cup. The reality of qualifying for Niger has now sunk in and I am gunning for more success.”

Ntseki, 45, is an impressive figure. Tall, imposing, not to be taken lightly. Bishop is younger, softer. Together they father these boys, and get the best from them. Ntseki insists: “There is massive talent in South Africa and the boys have shown what we can achieve if we stick together and have a common purpose.

“I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the SAFA President, Dr Danny Jordaan, his executive and the entire administration for their unwavering support for the team. As for the SAFA President (Dr Danny Jordaan); he is one man who has supported this team through and through. The man is a true leader. He was there to see the team off to Egypt and was the first to congratulate the team after the final whistle in Cairo.”

And then the soft, heart-felt conclusion: “I am always on the road and without my wife’s assurance, looking after our three boys, I would not be what I am developing into.”

On Sunday, Ntseki and the squad spent the day touring the great pyramids of Egypt. They arrived home yesterday in Johannesburg. There will be plenty of travelling to come. Niger next year and, God willing, Chile after that.

Today at Oliver Tambo International, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula joined the admiring throng, promising unspecified "rewards" for the youngsters and adding: "You did the country proud, conquering Egypt is a monumental achievement. You boys have become men.

"We had become a laughing stock on the African continent. You have demystified this myth. Now stay away from drugs and drinking... but you are under 18 and by law that is not allowed!"

SAFA president Danny Jordaan chipped in: "You have the world at your feet. Your achievement is humungous. There are 54 nations in Africa and already you among the top eight. If you do well in Niger next year, you will represent this continent at the World Cup in Chile."

Regular readers of this column will know I've been backing Ntseki's AmaJimbos for months. Can they finish in the top four in Niger next year? NO QUESTION!

Monday, 22 September 2014

From Brilliant to Salt 'n Vinegar: unbeaten Kaizer Chiefs are left with one problem: KHUNE

Brilliant: Nhlanhla Khuzwayo, Man of the Match
PERHAPS we should let Willard Katsande, my favourite defensive midfielder, explain how Kaizer Chiefs ended their trophy drought in Durban on Saturday.

I interviewed the 28-year-old Zimbabwean on Soccerballz, my “visual radio show” last week. He was superb. When I reminded him he scored the first and only goal of his AmaKhosi career in a Soweto Derby last March, he was typically modest.

Nominated on the three-man short-list for last season’s PSL player of the year award, Katsande said: “It was nice to score my first goal against Orlando Pirates but my job is to win the ball, balance the defence – and cut down on my yellow cards.”

After Tefu Mashamaite’s goal had defeated the Buccaneers at a packed Moses Mabhida Stadium and secured the R8million MTN8 winners’ cheque on Satuday, Katsande had done exactly what he said he would.

Tireless running, constant harrying, winning possession, making the easy pass. Sure, Itumeleng Khune’s goalkeeping replacement Brilliant Khuzwayo won the Man of the Match award for a string of good saves, but it was Katsande who, once more, provided the platform for Stuart Baxter.

Katsande told Robert Marawa on SuperSport after the trophy lifting celebrations: "First of all we need to thank god for this victory, it means a lot as you can see, we worked very hard.

"We managed stick to coaches game plan, it was a good game, both teams wanted to win.

"Coach Baxter always told me, I'm the engine of the team, I have to win every ball and I have to break down the oppositions attacks, so my job is too balance the team, give cover for my back four.”

As the Orlando Pirates post mortem began across the social networks, there was widespread disappointment with Vladimir Vermecovic, the Serbian coach once in charge at Naturena.

Many times before the game I suggest the only way to ruffle the unbeaten, rock-solid Chiefs defence would be to start with BOTH Lehlohonolo Majoro and Kermit Erasmus. But VV chose to leave Major on the bench once more and in a first half where the AmaKhosi played some serious passing football in the Barcelona (or even Arsenal) manner, Erasmus was an isolated figure up front.

With the ever-improving Tower Mathoho and scorer Mashamaite doubling up on Kermit, Pirates simply failed to create enough chances. Majoro’s arrival was too little too late, as was the sending on of Mpho Makola who was mysteriously dropped after an impressive run of early-season form.

Pirates will, no doubt recover. Though Chiefs are on a ten-match unbeaten run, the Buccaneers have recovered from a dodgy start to move up to third in the PSL. If VV has the courage, Erasmus and Majoro can yet provide the two-pronged fire-power to keep the Sea Robbers in the hunt.

For Chiefs, one slight problem looms. Nhlanhla Khuzwayo, whose “Brilliant” form shouldn’t really have surprised us given his early rave reviews as South Africa’s Under 23 goalkeeper, has now tasted the glory.

He blossomed in front of 64,000 fans and loved every minute. Afterwards he glowed: "Thanks to my family, my girlfriend, my brothers, my friends, everyone who believed in me, Itumeleng Khune, he was like motivating me all the time since I came to Kaizer Chiefs, he is just an inspiration to me.

"Thanks to the technical team, my players, the whole team, the gardeners that clean our fields, everyone who made this a success for us, thank you to everyone, this is for them, this is for them and my family, my kids, most of all, I love them with all my hearts.

"It means everything to me, having to go out onto the field and represent yourself, represent your soul and how you feel inside, it is just an amazing feeling. It's my own backward, we're in KZN, I'm from KZN, it's just an inspiration for me to come play in KZN.

Forever fearless: Kaizer Chiefs, MTN8 winners
"This goes out to my mother, my late mother who passed away in 2006, this is why I am wearing number 16. When I was 16 years old she used to say, make me proud. When I was 16 she told me that."

Brilliant words. But any football coach, from your Under 9 boss to your high-powered international manager, will tell you how difficult it is to keep more than one goalkeeper happy in a squad.

In top level football, the substitution of goalkeepers is neither fashionable nor wise. A keeper subbed without injury is a keeper admonished. And the question is: what will Baxter do now that Khuzwayo has starred in a cup final? He also has top youngster Reyaad Pieterse as back up. Whisper it, but could Itumeleng Khune, the nation’s greatest goalkeeper, now become a sellable asset?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

VIDEO AND WORDS: Willard Katsande: the unsung hero on his key role in tonight's MTN8 final

BOOM! Willard Katsande scores against Pirates
WILLARD KATSANDE could well be the anonymous workman at this evening's MTN8 final against Orlando Pirates in Durban. But don't be deceived. Even on a bad day he plays a huge role in the Kaizer Chiefs machine, unbeaten in NINE games so far this season.

To me, the 28-year-old Zimbabwean is head-and-shoulders ahead of his PSL rivals as "the destroyer" and eminently capable of doing better than, say, Mikel Arteta as Arsenal's defensive midfielder given his form over the last two years under Stuart Baxter. So often the unsung hero, he is the man coach Stuart Baxter NEVER rests.

The Soweto Durbsy (as I'm calling it) could even be decided by "Salt 'n Vinegar" (Willard's was a famous brand of potato crisps in this country), having scored the only goal in the Soweto Derby in front of 90,000 at Soccer City earlier this year.

"It was incredible to score my first goal for the club in THAT game, but for me, I'm not promising to score in Durban. My job is to break down the opposition attack, to give the defence balance. That's what I'm focused on.

"To score is a bonus for me, my job is to help Kaizer Chiefs win the game."

A response typical of the man.

Nominated on the three-man shortlist with Sbu Vilakazi (Bidvest Wits) and Alje Schut (Mamelodi Sundowns) as Player of the Season last term, Katsande says: "That was the highlight of my career, I will cherish that memory.

"When you are growing up as a player, it is a dream to play for a club like Kaizer Chiefs, the biggest club in Africa. As a youngster I played for Gunners in Harare and we beat Al Ahly. But now my life is a dream.

"The only disappointment at the moment is that Zimbabwe were knocked out of the AFCON qualifiers by Tanzania earlier this year. Preparation for international games in Zimbabwe needs to be fixed."

Final words: Willard's SMS this morning
On the thorny subject of discipline - I used to called him Cardsande for his ability to pick up cautions - the typically modest but always crisp Willard response is: "I am learning. Tinashe Nengomasha recommended me to Kaizer Chiefs and he is the one who tells me: work on your interceptions. You don't always have to make the tackle if you intercept.

"You have to be 100 percent sure you are going for the ball otherwise they are going to book you. I am working on that!"

The full Willard Katsande interview is available below. You can see me change from Orlando Pirates shirt to Kaizer Chiefs at around 10mins. I am neutral on the Soweto rivals. But on this I have bias: Willard Katsande is the kind of bloke who makes you happy to do your job.

Watch him carefully today at the Moses Mabhida. Watch the work he does. How many times he himself gets clobbered but gets up smiling. All youngsters should watch and learn.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Great Daine: South Africa's most decorated footballer promises: No goalless draw in the Soweto Durbsy!

High flier: Daine Klaite, 13 winners' medals
DAINE KLATE has a bit of an appetite for silverware. He's the little wide man who won THREE SUCCESSIVE league titles with SuperSports United before decamping to Orlando Pirates and winning TWO TREBLES.

Add to that last season's Nedbank Cup and you get the drift. By my calculations he has 13 major winners' medals, more than any other player currently playing at the top level in South Africa. When he talks (or tweets) it's best to listen (or read).

The 29-year-old, discovered as a 15-year-old playing for Glenville Celtic in Port Elizabeth (he came through the Transnet Academy with a bloke called Steven Pienaar),  was tweeting boldly during the week about the joy of teams who play to win rather than trying to avoid defeat in the European Champions League.

Though some had a go (as they do on twitter) Klaite had hit the nail on the head. South African football is plagued by cautious coaches who live in fear of the sack. Buses are parked, defensive midfielders abound, goals are rare, though there ARE signs of a revival this season.

But when Pirates play unbeaten PSL leaders Kaizer Chiefs in the R8m MTN8 Final at the Moses Mabhida on Saturday night (kick-off 8.15pm) Klate is determined to put his twinkle where his tweet is.

The "Soweto Durbsy" in recent years has failed to inspire despite drawing full houses around South Africa and Klate insists: “We would hate it to be a dull game you know, with the score 0-0 and there's only one shot at goal, but we can't shy away from going out to attack the opposition.

“We always try to go forward, we always try to score - and hopefully Chiefs will do the same.”

Which is great from a man known for his quick feet and uncanny ability to seek out the reasonably deadly Buccaneering strike duo of Kermit Erasmus and Lehlohonolo Majoro in the embryonic weeks of the new season.

After a slow start, Pirates are up to third in the PSL with many calling for Kermit and Major to play together rather than in shifts as the vamped Vladimir Vermecovic seeks to build on last season's Nedbank Cup success, which came after final defeats under Roger de Sa in the MTN8, TelkomKO and African Champions League.

As they head for an unprecedented FIFTH successful cup final, Klaite insists: “For me personally I’d love to have a game similar to when we played against Sundowns, where we had two teams really going at each other.

“A match like the one against Masandawana was great for me, and not only because we won, but because of the football we played. That’s the type of game that we would like to give the supporters every time, but obviously it doesn’t always happen like that,.

“In the back of my mind that would be an ideal final, but we have to entertain within discipline and within structure.

"When we wake up on Saturday morning in Durban, everybody will be ready for the final. You can't predict things but the only promise we can give to fans is that we will give 100 percent and more if need be."

Saturday's top-eight conclusion will be Pirates's fifth cup final in a row. The Buccaneers lifted the Nedbank Cup trophy in May after finishing runners-up in the 2013/14 MTN8, Telkom Knockout and Caf Champions League.

“In cup competitions we have a winning mentality, we have momentum. When VV arrived here last season, he came at a very difficult stage, psychologically.

“To reach a final is a big step. He came in and told us that we were doing well when the players were all looking forward to the off season. He said we were good at reaching cup finals, he was good at winning them. And we did.”

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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

Rowen Fernandez, the Bidvest Wits goalkeeper, scored the own goal winner AND was voted Man of the Match against Orlando Pirates on Saturday. Thought you might like to see THIS effort in the Bundesliga from Rowen:

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Shocking video of building collapse in Nigeria which killed 67 South Africans.... after unidentified aircraft buzzed the building

Devastation: the scene in Itokun, Lagos
Extraordinary video of the collapse of the "prophet" TB Joshua's church in Nigeria on Friday. An unidentified aircraft flies past several times before Synagoque Church of all Nations in Itokun, Lagos simply imploded.

President Jacob Zuma confirmed in a statement on national televisions tonight, four days after the incident, that 67 South Africans died in the disaster. Yet strangely, local news sources today put the TOTAL death toll at 62.

Nelson Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Mandela, stricken Springbok rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen, colleague Jaco van der Westhuizen and EFF leader Julius Malema have all visited the site, where passports must be handed in on arrival. The building in question was an "overseas visitor" hostel. Reports suggest the building was being extended before the collapse.

TB Joshua claims to have predicted many tragedies, including the Malaysian Airlines disappearance and Michael Jackson's death. His supporters believe he can heal AIDS and cancer sufferers. He claikms the mysterious aircraft caused the collapse rather than the two-floor extension. The enormously popular preacher says: "I want to assure you, our God will get them, these agents of Satan."

He added: "Our terrain is stable. We have never had a building collapse in 30 years. There was a jet hovering at very close range."

Monday, 15 September 2014

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED: De Sa and Igesund pose a threat to the big guns

Lurking: Igesund and De Sa
There is only one place to be this weekend. The Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday hosts the MTN8 final between unbeaten Kaizer Chiefs and resurgent arch-rivals Orlando Pirates. Stuart Baxter v VV will dominate the week for South Africa’s football-speaking majority.

To dare to predict the outcome of a game which sold out on Computicket in the space of for hours would be difficult, not to say deceptive… even dangerous. The AmaKhosi have played nine games this season, six in the PSL, and they’ve wwwwwwwwwwon them all. BuccaBucca fans will point out they are heading for a FIFTH successive cup final, an achievement as statistically improbable as it is laudable.

There will be 56,000 in Durban on Saturday enthusiastically pointing out the Forever Fearless revival of Reneilwe Letsholonyane or the Once Always option of starting with Kermit Erasmus or Lehlohonolo Majoro.

Me? I’m colour blind. Black and Gold? Black and White? It’s all the same to me, especially when your soft spot for rock-bottom AmaZulu leaves you feeling green about the gills.

More importantly perhaps, as Chiefs and Pirates take a week off league action for the R8m on offer from MTN, is what’s bubbling quietly beneath them in the PSL.

Obviously Gavin Hunt’s big spending Bidvest Wits and Pitso Mosimane’s champions Mamelodi Sundowns will enjoy their time off (Wits restart the PSL action on the 26th against AmaZulu) before resuming the battle for the title that REALLY matters.

But I am here to warn of two quiet revolutions going on in South African football. One involves the sheer youthful exuberance of Roger de Sa at Ajax Cape Town. The other, the hard-bitten, silver-lined experience of Gordon Igesund at SuperSport United.

On Saturday, former Pirates boss De Sa, with 19 academy graduates in his 23-man squad, kept his side unbeaten in second place, four points behind Chiefs, with a 2-1 win over Bloemfontein Celtic.

Did he boast about it? Did he roar a warning to the big guns? No, De Sa simply said: “If we are going to be serious League challengers then we have got to score that third and fourth goal and we need to learn to do that."

It was De Sa who got Pirates to their first THREE Cup finals, including the big one, the African Champions League. Now surrounded by the young and impressionable rather than the over-paid and sinister, he chides: "We gave away a silly goal. Bad defending and bad goalkeeping didn’t help. We should have killed them off.”

A lot further down the table lies the other threat to the big guns. The return of Bafana Bafana coach Gordon Igesund was always going to be interesting. After an uncomfortable two years in charge of the national squad, he returns to his real speciality: winning PSL titles.

As the only man to do exactly that with FOUR different clubs, Igesund settled in to Cavin Johnson’s hot-seat at SuperSport United and immediately inspired a 3-1 win over Platinum Stars to keep the club out of the relegation zone after a difficult start.

Igesund purred: "All national coaches start out in club football. I’m just thrilled to be back. You miss the day to day running of the club; every morning you wake up and get excited about going to training.

“With the national team you have to get your players three days before a game; they come in from overseas, and you have to do a lot of work and then go and play. Now, I’m back to working daily with my players and building relationships.

"I am loving it, and I’m so excited to be back. They had no confidence, and they were demoralized after having played 5 games and only one win. You have to pick them up and lift their spirits, and that's how I felt when I got here.”

“We will get better as we go along. It’s only one win for us; we need to go forward now and try to pick up as many points as we can.”

Stuart Baxter and Vladimir Vermecovic will dominate the week. Mosimane and Hunt will gain a mention. But if we’re not talking about De Sa and Igesund by the end of the season, I’d be surprised.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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

My interview with Kermit Erasmus on Socerballz last week:

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Four points out of six. Can't argue with that, Shakes. But in a nation famous for striking...

Strike out: Ndulula against Nigeria last night
SHAKES MASHABA. Four points out of six. That's not a bad return for the resurrected national head coach, after a tricky trip to Sudan followed by a tough home start against African Champions Nigeria.

Last night Sudan lost 2-0 in the Congo before Bafana Bafana produced a performance of pure passion in front of 32,412 to hold Nigeria 0-0 and they currently fill the second qualifying spot in Group A for AFCON in Morocco next year.

Tower Mothoho's off-the-line clearance late in the second half might have been the decisive moment; an early chance for Oupa Manyisa, playing wide on the left, was the best South Africa could show for a sparkling first half.

Though Nigeria had eight shots to Bafana's three and 53-47% possession, Shakes argued: "We created more chances, we had more than seven. We should have scored one."

And in post-match patter reminiscent of Gordon Igersund and Pitso Mosimane's worst, he added: "This was a walk in the park, we should have slaughtered these people. We were all over them, should have scored at least."

It's easy to get carried away - Mashaba's passion and enthusiasm are undeniable - but in truth 0-0 was a fair result. And not a bad one considering that, in 9 previous games between the two nations, South Africa had won just ONCE.

In the space of a week, after successfully getting his beloved Under 20 AmaJitas past Cameroon to their African Youth Championship in Senegal next year, Mashaba appears to have produced a revamped, younger South Africa despite the obstacles thrown carelessly in front of him by the footballing gods.

Ayanda Patosi missed to flights from Europe to South Africa, allegedly ending up in tears somewhere in an airport departure lounge.

Resident goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune - with his captaincy under threat - crocked his ankle in the opening camp sparking all kinds of utterly unfair rumors.

Kermit Erasmus and Leohonolo Majoro, the in-form Orlando Pirates strikers, came in to form just too late for Shakes while FC Twente's Kamohelo Motkotjo (like May Mahlangu, Siyanda Xulu and Thulani Serero, our other top flight Europeans) didn't earn a single second on the park in Khartoum or Cape Town.

To add to the general discomfort, Bafana remain without a proper strip (Nike insist on launching in November, nobody really knows why), without a National Technical Director (a month later than Danny Jordaan promised) and without a recognized international striker (PSL top scorer Bernard Parker has only just returned for Kaizer Chiefs after ankle surgery).

And for all that, if South African can beat Congo in Brazzaville on October 10, they'll be top of Group A against all expectations. Having said that, if Bafana lost that one and Nigeria, as expected, win in Sudan, second place will become a battle to the death with Bafana finishing their campaign in Nigeria on November 15.

There was this too from Shakes in the post-match press conference: "Bongani Ndulula, we would't have pulled him out, he suffered a hamstring. I think one of the chances that we got – now don't say Tokelo Rantie couldn't – Ndulula with the composure and the skill to score goals, he would have done something."

There was no evidence of that. Ndulula shows little of the composure showed by Erasmus or Majoro this season, and the goal-getting headache Pitso and Gordon regularly highlighted remains apparent.

Elsewhere, with the old wood cleared out, man of the match Andile Jali and Dean Furman gave Chelsea's Jon Obi Mikel a torrid night in midfield. Thulani "Tyson" Hlatshwayo showed he can trade punches with the best and captain Senzo Meyiwa survived with his goal intact after his unexpected elevation to leadership 180 minutes ago.

Shakes had taken a deep breath before his parting words: "I wouldn't leave this mic without saying to the people, thanks very much.

"You could see they gave the boys the strength that they needed. We never had the armchair critics, everybody was positive, they were supporting the boys and it gave the boys the energy they needed. We say to them once more, thank you for coming, we appreciate it."

Crucially, at a time when SAFA are pushing something called Vision2022 (Shakes will be 71 by then) Shakes has kept hope alive for 2015. And for that alone, we say to you once more, thank you for coming back Shakes, we appreciate it.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Shakes Mashaba verdict: One game, one mighty away win. Now for Nigeria (hopefully)


Lifting the nation: Bafana Bafana head coach Shakes Mashaba
Shakes Mashaba re-started his career as South Africa’s national coach with a bang on Friday night and faces Nigeria (unless FIFA intervene) on Wednesday in Cape Town with renewed optimism surging around the country.

Chief among the praise singers? Our Sports Ministers Fikile Mbalula. I caught up with him at the ANN7 South African of the Year awards at the Sandton Convention centre on Saturday night just to check those laughing, dancing tweets he sends out are REALLY his: “No assistants, all my own work,” was his response to messages of wild congratulation to Mashaba in Sudan.

And that’s as it should be. Shakes went in to his first game pre-occupied by the fate of his AmaJitas, having engineered a path to the African Youth Championship in Senegal next year against Cameroon less than a week before taking over the big boys of Bafana.

For that reason, the questions before the game were many and varied. Players with strong European CVs like May Mahlangu, Thulani Serero and Siyanda Xulu were ignored in the coach’s new selection while Tokelo Rantie and Dean Furman, in-and-out players in the lower reaches of English football, were drafted straight in to the starting line-up.

In-form PSL players like Tsepo Masilela, Kermit Erasmus and Lehlohonolo Majoro were left out while David Xulu and Bongani Ndulula were in. By the time Keagan Dolly and Mashaba admitted they knew next-to-nothing about Sudan or its football team, the debate was raging.

And when Kamahelo Mokotjo, playing well for FC Twente in the Dutch Ere Divisie, couldn’t even find a place on the bench, things moved up a notch.

But that’s how it should be. No national coach is immune to critique, even on debut. There's a nasty, desperate BBK column in the Sunday Times today suggesting racism is behind the questioning of some of Mashaba's decisions. Given the battle against his predecessor Gordon Igesund, that's just low-life journalism.

Yes, the build-up was lively, as you’d expect… but when Bafana hit back after a difficult first half with supersub Sbu Vilakazi scoring a brace before Ndulula added the third, general celebration ensued. Mashaba's brave decisions had become great ones. All was right in the diski world.

I said all week Sudan, ranked 115 in by FIFA, would be no match for South Africa, ranked 69. Mark Fish and I agreed a away point would be fine, but a win even better… and that’s how it turned out.

Bringing on player of the season Vilakazi of Wits for Bournemouth's Rantie proved a work of genius, Furman and Jali took control of the middle of the park and Senzo Meyiwa, who took the shirt and the armband from the injured Itumeleng Khune, was near-perfect. Oupa Manyisa, who should have started, added impetus when he came on. Shakes passed with flying colours on all his major questions.

With Nigeria in all sorts of trouble – they could be suspended from FIFA by the time you read this and “interim coach” Steve Keshi’s African Champions lost to Congo in their opening game on Saturday – but the fact remains they Super Eagles have only lost ONE and draw ONE in nine attempts against South Africa.

But Shakes is well aware of that. Blessed with an extraordinary ability to meld even an average bunch of players into a “patriotic unit”, here is his interview with SAFA after the match:  “Once we weathered the storm in the opening minutes in which they pumped long balls upfront, I knew we would achieve our goal of coming away with three points. And the boys stuck to the script.

“In the second half, we completely dominated the game and with clinical finishing, the scoreline could have been 6, 7 or 8. But the 3-0 win is quite encouraging and we need to maintain the momentum.

“I think the entire team played well and it will be unfair to single out individuals. It was a great team effort and I think all players deserve praise.

 “We are meeting our nemesis but my gut feel is that all that all the losing to Nigeria is about to change. Wednesday should be a defining moment.”

Can’t say it any better than that, Shakes!

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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

Thursday, 4 September 2014

No need to get the Shakes: FIFA and Nigeria are offering Bafana Bafana a possible short-cut to glory!

Unfazed: Steve Keshi, currently Nigeria's "interim" boss
NOBODY in their right mind can be happy about the way Bafana Bafana have prepared for their AFCON 2015 qualifiers. Let's get that straight from the start.

But this morning, I bring glad tidings of great joy for South Africa's national football team through the usual route: a technicality also known as THE BACK DOOR.

Even better, it's a potentially HUGE blow for our traditional nemesis, Nigeria. Remember, we've played them NINE times, one once in 2004, drawn on in 1993 and LOST THE OTHER SEVEN. But fear not. Here it is, in a sentence, released yesterday by FIFA:

Following the decision by the FIFA Emergency Committee, FIFA has today, 3 September 2014, sent a letter to the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) confirming that the NFF will be suspended with immediate effect should there still be persons claiming to have been elected to NFF positions on 26 August 2014 and occupying their offices on Monday, 8 September 2014 at 08.00 (Central European Time).

Yes, that's the line from FIFA which could see Shakes Mashaba heroically qualifying for AFCON 2015 despite all the odds and Ebola. Which would be nice seeing that our SAFA president Danny Jordaan has apparently been so busy sorting out the tournament jun Morocco after brilliantly master-minding the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, 2013 AFCON and 2014 CHAN.

Good old Danny. Good old Shakes. Good old Technical Director (as yet unnamed). All we have to do if Nigeria don't get rid of Chris Giwa and re-instate Aminu Maigari, the former NFF president, is finish in the top two of Group A which will be drastically reduced to three teams.

The great Steve Keshi, declared "interim coach" for Saturday's opening clash with the Congo in Calabar, insists he's unfazed by all this but surely, it's got to be weighing heavily. One source suggests Keshi is getting paid personally by Nigeria's Sports Minister Tammy Danagogo to run the team for two games.

Yup, Sudan, Congo, South Africa. Can we hit the top two? I reckon so, even without Thulani Serero, May Mahlangu, Kermit Erasmus and the suddenly injured goalkeepers Ronwen Williams and  Itumeleng Khune (Ayanda Patosi is apparently still in the air somewhere, having missed his connection from Belgium).

If Cape Town on September 10 against those swooping Super Eagles won't happen, but effectively, those valuable three points will be in the bag. Woohoo!

Incredible isn't it? The current AFCON champions aren't going to take this lying down of course. They were suspended for nine days in July after Maigari's original ousting and the NFF executive then voted Giwa in for a second time. But FIFA are having none of it. Oh, and Nigeria's domestic league is some chaos too, with emergency committees and suspensions everywhere.

This afternoon, Nigeria's House of Representatives backed FIFA, insisting Giwa must step down and insisting his claim to the NFF presidency was "false".

It's all set for Shakes to begin his career with the kind of triumph we felt when Ethiopia were docked three points in the World Cup qualifying campaign for Brazil. Sadly, that didn't quite work out. We finished second after defeat in Addis Ababa and didn't even reach the play-offs, where the Antelopes were shoved out by… Nigeria's Super Eagles.

Such is life. Shakes and his charges are in Sudan as I speak. They flew via Dar Es Salaam, arrived yesterday, were given a really dodgy old bus and then decided not to train as it was too hot. Later Mashaba said the team were "delayed" by transport problems.

Today, final preparations begin for a side without so many of the old familiar faces. Senzo Meyiwa, the Orlando Pirates goalkeeper, has been made captain while FC Twente's Kamahelo Makotja looks the major player against a modest Sudan side without foreign stars. Up front, the PSL's form strikers will be watching on television as Bournemouth's Tokelo Rantie attempts to find his scoring form tomorrow night at 8pm.

Shakes said of Meyiwa's elevation today: "I think Meya has worked hard and dserved the chance. He is a leader and I like his overall attitude."

Meyiwa, 26, said: "I asked the coach if I can share my experience of playing in Africa with Orlando Pirates in the Champions League. We will do that today, Thabo Matlaba, Andile Jali (now playing in Belgium for Oostende) anbd Oupa Manyisa.

"People will talk about this new side, but what do we do as players? We must make sure we make our country's proud. It's vital we concentrate on the opening minutes tomorrow. For us, as players who played in the Champions League, we know what to expect.

"Sudan will feel the heat tomorrow just like us, so that can't be an excuse. We've played under these conditions. We must expect everything, a lot of things that won't be nice including the referees."

On paper, South Africa should walk it. Our domestic league is something the Sudanese can only dream of, the levels of investment and organization in South Africa are the envy of Africa, as we all know.

Only problem is, there are whispers. Kaizer Chiefs goalkeeper Khune, rarely beaten in the AmaKhosi's opening run of eight straight wins, finds himself crocked with a Grade 3 fracture of a bone in his heel. According to Bafana doctor Thulani Ngwenya, this is a long-standing injury which "could be aggravated" if he flies to Sudan.

But there has been no sign of Khune struggling. His team-mate Bernard Parker played with a dodgy ankle for four months last season, failing to add to his Golden Boot wining tally of 10 goals after February, but that was different. He looked a yard short of pace, and insisted on playing despite the swelling of the joint which required surgery in the winter.

Khune has shown no signs of discomfort. His distribution remains sharp and crisp, the envy of goalkeepers worldwide. Never saw him hobbling at any point. But the ankle blew up and scans revealed the fracture.

Senzo Meyiwa takes the No 1 jersey and the captaincy armband Khune left behind but the question remains: is this one of those phantom injuries (remember Nigeria in the disastrous CHAN tournament earlier this year when Moeneeb Josephs became the fall guy?) or a genuine knock?

Word is the Marks Park surface for training on Monday and Tuesday was a little harder than usual. Khune was not the only one who struggled, withdrawing before the end of training. Andile Jali and Keet both expressed concerns.

Of the other injuries, Shakes says: “We had Buhle (Mkhwanazi) from Wits, who was selected and we were told that he is injured. Our medical staff followed up and confirmed the injury. We were told Ronwen (Williams) has an ankle problem and we requested the club to send him through so that we can check him, not that we did not believe them but we wanted to confirm, and yes, he has a swollen ankle. Themba Zwane was reported to be injured but he came in and he said he was fine and the doctors confirmed that."

So it's been up and down for Mr Mashaba a day after parliament considered passing "hands off Shakes" legislation. But hey, why worry? We don't have the Technical Director Danny Jordaan promised a month ago. The new Nike kit is still not with Bafana. Shakes has spent most of his time before his Bafana debut concentrating on getting the Under 20 AmaJitas to Senegal (great job chaps) only to find his suggested replacement Serame Letsoaka has gone to SuperSport FC with some bloke called Gordon Igesund.

But it matters not. If Nigeria are suspended from AFCON on Monday, as FIFA are threatening, none of this will matter. Second in a group of three? No problem. And even if they the House of Representatives manages to dislodge the NFF president, Nigeria are not in the best of shape. A top two finish in Group A is attainable. Surely?

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' Youtube channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names.

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