While naming somebody “sports personality of the year” is often little more than a Noddy Badge, once in a while, personalities truly enchant - and dig deep into the hearts and minds of those in their surroundings. Shakes Mashaba has had one heck of a year and deserves to be lauded. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Recognising that somebody has or is a “sport personality” is, in most cases, a bit like making somebody class captain at school. It is, for all intents and purposes, simply a Noddy Badge of approval.
Sometimes, though, personalities are so endearing and powerful that you cannot help but be enchanted. That enchantment influences those they are in charge of and becomes visible in the tangible difference it makes on the field. The influence of Shakes Mashaba’s personality has been a godsend for South African football this year.
At age group level, he led the South African Under-20 side to qualification for the CAF Youth Championships to be held in Senegal next year, before taking over as senior men’s coach a few months later. From there, he turned a lacklustre Bafana Bafana into a team that looks well drilled and has a vision and purpose.
He was not afraid to make big calls and big changes and, despite sometimes courting controversy with those big decisions, he has stood by them. Until now, those decisions have worked out for the better, too. It takes a strong personality to have such courage in one’s convictions and to trust one’s decisions so implicitly, especially when you are under the scanner. As a coach who was called the “cheap option” when he was appointed, Mashaba had a point to prove and boy, did he prove it.
While he is not the only coach to achieve great things this year, he has had to do so in under often adverse circumstances. Having already dealt with his first-choice keeper, Itumeleng Khune, being out injured, he then had to deal with the murder of Senzo Meyiwa. It takes a special kind of person, with a special kind of personality, to keep a team focused and together after such a tragedy. Through the adversity, South Africa finished their Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign unbeaten and if anyone still doubted Mashaba’s ability, they are now surely hushed.
“If we are still having those doubters, I think they are doing that at their own peril. In life you have the doubting Thomases and you have those who have their own people. Maybe I’m not their person. For what I have done in football, I doubt there is anyone who doubts my abilities. I have done a lot from the juniors to the senior national team,” he said after helping the side qualify for Afcon.
South Africa’s footballing challenges in 2014 were tough, but the Africa Cup of nations in 2015 will be their toughest test yet. For the first time in a long time, though, the future does not feel completely uncertain. Mashaba might have only been in charge of the team for a short time, but his influence has already been far-reaching. His work at age group level puts him head and shoulders above the rest. He is a man with no pretences and no need for beating around the bush. Unlike some of his predecessors, if there is a problem or a shortcoming, Mashaba will admit it. His pragmatic selection and faith in youngsters has been a revelation.
He is a teacher, a counsellor and a statesman, and while caution should always accompany excitement when it comes to a new coaching era, Mashaba’s personality and his influence deserves to be recognised.
As somebody who has been eating, sleeping, living and breathing the game since he was just ten years old, he has been there and done all of that. In 2015, he will be able to do even more. Building on the foundations he has created in 2014 will be crucial. Drawn in one of the toughest groups for 2015’s Afcon, Mashaba has already set out plans for gathering intel.
“A tough group that we find ourselves in with all four teams coming from different regions, so it needs a lot of spying [and] planning because all three teams are very good – Ghana, Algeria and Senegal,” he said after the Afcon draw.
“What we can say to South Africans is that even though it is a tough draw, we are going to there to compete. I suppose also in any group we could have been in it would have been difficult, we must just plan thoroughly and do our best.”
Usually, “trying one’s best” will be seen as cliché, but in Mashaba’s hands, “the best” paints a striking and optimistic picture. Long may his tenure continue. DM