Johannesburg - Stuart Baxter will qualify Bafana Bafana for the 2018 soccer World Cup.
However, this feat can be achieved by any coach worth his salt at this juncture.
This is not a reflection on Baxter’s abilities, but rather on the environment that is surrounding the Bafana coaching team and the fortuitous timing of his appointment.
In the past, all the coaches who have joined the national team have succeeded in their first five to 10 matches. The reason for their success is human nature as it applies to the coach, players, the SA Football Association (Safa) leadership and the fans.
When a new coach is appointed, all those involved give the coach a chance. This chance manifests in players putting in their best performances. The nation’s pride in Bafana is restored as they win some games, and marketeers start talking about changing the team’s name to reflect the men they are.
The media will give the coach the obligatory honeymoon while taking copious notes of his promises. Football intermediaries will steer clear of the national team as the coach professes his resoluteness in his lack of interest in their dealings.
Bafana will win an appropriate number of games and, by accident or design, qualify for the World Cup. Then all the key players will revert to type, not because of the qualification – this will happen because the system will normalise and all hell will break loose. This is based on observation over time of how the Safa system is designed and operates. The only changes tend to be in personnel here and there, though these new staffers come with the same attributes as those they replace.
Here is how this matter will pan out: The coach is going to start by believing in his invincibility, and start talking about himself as separate to the association. The coach will become a law unto himself and depart from the operational (selection, tactical and so on) criterion he is surely going to put out to the world.
The coach will start with one of the key untruths in South African football: “There is no football development in the country,” which all and sundry will lap up. (This being a topic for another column. Let me just say that there is massive football development in the country...the problem is its management. Our junior teams are regularly qualifying for continental and global competitions).
The coach will then start picking players he trusts to secure either his job or income streams, depending on his persuasion and future options at the time.
The Safa leadership will put the coach under extreme pressure given various considerations. The key consideration, which, for some reason, keeps eluding the national team’s coaches, is commercial. Coaches struggle with the notion that Safa generates income from the success, desirability and accessibility of the national teams, especially Bafana. They will also put pressure on some players and their inclusion based on strategic considerations: “building for the future”, “gratitude for gallant services” and so on. More pressure will also come about when the association has to rein in the coach as he morphs into a separate persona from the association and becomes unaccountable.
As all of these pressures come to bear and the media has a field day second-guessing every move and opining on every issue, the players are forgotten. Players start underperforming as the coach starts picking those he trusts, departing from perceived fairness of the previously professed criterion. The media and the public, and maybe a minister, start calling them names.
The end result is that we may not have the same coach take us to the World Cup or, if he does, he may not qualify us for the 2019 African Cup of Nations (Afcon). The question then is, what is to be done to ensure the honeymoon is followed by a good season?
Good coaches in the system
Safa has to have a clear system within which the coach and those involved operate. The key ingredient of the system has to be accountability by all. This accountability applies to the leadership – strategic and operational – the technical staff and the support staff. It is telling that, although we earlier this year qualified for the Fifa Under-20 World Cup, the team was incomplete on the eve of departure.
The Under-20 coach/es and technical director should have developed a plan for the World Cup for the administrators to execute and for the leaders to hold them accountable. The one depends on the other. The plan would have detailed preparations, players and their back-ups, pre-tournament preparations, technical personnel needed and various tactical options for the World Cup. This should apply to all national teams.
Safa should have at its disposal a reservoir of accurate, useful and meaningful data on its operations. This applies particularly to players and coaches so they can manage the football development currently under way. Safa should be able to produce at the press of a button a list of the top 100 players across its various age groups; a database of good coaches in the system and so on. This kind of information should be the basis of the criterion that will surely be punted by Baxter, those before him and those who will come after him. Without accurate information systems and an effective accountability process, history will be repeated.
Until Safa establishes a system that will apply universally, driven by a capable technical director, adapted and implemented by various coaches, the cycle will continue.
So, congratulations to Baxter for the 2018 World Cup qualification and Godspeed for Afcon 2019.
Lerefolo is a former Safa national executive committee member