Shakes Mashaba, no stranger to magic moments, has had a tremendous run since taking over as South Africa’s national football coach. But Bafana Bafana are still far from the completed product. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
As far as rough starts to a coaching tenure go, Shakes Mashaba could not have had it tougher. Not only was the national team in such a dreadful state that he wasn’t even given the mandate to qualify, but many also believed he was only chosen because he was a more cost-effective solution than any of the other candidates.
A few months later and Bafana Bafana qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations 2015, and came close to beating the defending champions Nigeria in Nigeria. They kept a clean sheet for the first four games of their campaign and topped their group, remaining unbeaten throughout.
It’s quite something, but it should not be a surprise. Mashaba has done this all before. As the first South African coach to take a junior team to the junior World Cup, a man who oversaw the Under-23s beat Brazil at the Olympics and even leading Bafana to 2004 Afcon qualification, Mashaba is something of a miracle worker.
He is also a statesman and a man with a vision. Right from the start he set out to reward young talent and he knows those waiting in the pipeline better than anyone. When Itumeleng Khune was injured and ruled out of qualifiers, he trusted Senzo Meyiwa to take over the gloves. Meyiwa rewarded his faith with four clean sheets.
Mashaba then came up against another obstacle, one very few coaches will have to deal with in their lifetime. His new captain and goalkeeper was murdered. Mashaba had to not only pick a new captain and keeper, he also had to help his charges get over the psychological strain of losing one of their teammates. His replacement gloveman, Darren Keet, aptly performed his job.
It’s been quite a ride to get here. At the heart of Mashaba’s strategy is patriotism. From the get-go, the coach insisted he wanted to restore pride in playing for the national team and those who aren’t willing to make sacrifices needed to shape up or ship out. Mashaba believed in this so strongly that May Mahlangu was ousted from the team for the foreseeable future after he withdrew from the last Afcon qualifiers due to fatigue.
It was a firm decision, but that doesn’t make it entirely right. While some Bafana players are notorious for their tendency to feel tired when duty calls, tiredness should not be brushed aside so easily.
Bafana’s journey to Afcon qualification has been nothing short of remarkable, but that doesn’t mean they’re the completed article yet.
On Wednesday, for the first few minutes during the final qualifier against Nigeria, South Africa looked tentative and unsettled. Nigeria broke more on the counter than plates break at a Greek wedding. The strikers were cautious and the team looked overwhelmed. But after Tokelo Rantie broke through in the first half, though, the momentum shifted.
Rantie, who has had a torrid time in England since he became Bournemouth’s record signing last year, took on a different form when he played in the national team colours and has credited the coach for creating an environment players can aspire to play for.
“Shakes Mashaba must be applauded for the good job he is doing. He has definitely created a team that can compete with any opposition. This will help the standard of our football to grow as all players will now want to play for the national team which means more competition. Congratulations again to the national team, the best is still to come,” he said.
Under pressure to perform for both club and country recently, Rantie admitted he’s had to make some mental changes to rediscover some of his form.
“It is a great feeling which I haven’t had in a very long time. I think we did well even though I am a little disappointed that we did not win the match,” the striker told safa.net after the match.
“Coming to this match, I was personally pushed by other factors to do well. I have received a lot of criticism in national team matches. But when I was sitting alone in my room, I decided to stop worrying about such and play my own game and see what happens.
“I let go off all the pressure that I have been feeling in all these matches which made it difficult for me to perform,” said Rantie.
The pressure on him has also, at least in part, been because of South Africa’s over reliance on him to score.
If they are to even dream of doing well in next year’s Afcon, the midfield and set pieces will need some work, but luckily for the team, there is plenty of time to fine-tune their game.
While some of the results can certainly be put down to Mashaba’s ‘honeymoon period’, his ability to motivate and trust in youth is exceptional. Bafana might not be world-beaters just yet, but they are looking fresh, hungry and motivated. And, Mashaba’s appointment has certainly proved just how much can change if there’s no expectation on the man who holds the reins. DM
Photo: A South African waves a flag as she watches the 2010 World Cup opening match between Mexico and South Africa on TV screen at the fan fest in Nelspruit June 11, 2010. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado