Sport

STILL IN THE GAME

Broosed but not broken — coach’s Bafana story is far from over after Afcon heroics

Broosed but not broken — coach’s Bafana story is far from over after Afcon heroics
Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos reacts to their defeat in the Africa Cup of Nations semifinal against Nigeria at Peace Stadium in Bouake, Ivory Coast, on 7 February 2024 (Photo: Gavin Barker / BackpagePix)

Belgian coach Hugo Broos has no plans to end his Bafana Bafana love affair any time soon.

When in May 2021 the South African Football Association (Safa) announced Hugo Broos as the next man to attempt to resurrect a team that was once one of the most respected and influential on the continent, there was some uncertainty. Along with many questions.

A few months before Broos’s appointment, Bafana Bafana had again failed to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon), this time under the guidance of Molefi Ntseki.

Ntseki had taken over from Stuart Baxter, who quit the Bafana job in 2019, not long after Bafana Bafana were ousted from the quarterfinals of the 2019 Afcon. Baxter hinted that a lack of support from Safa’s hierarchy was his reason for leaving.

“A coach must have confidence that his input can help the project move forward and, after the Afcon, my belief in the process has weakened considerably,” said ­Baxter at the press conference at which he announced his departure from Bafana Bafana.

Safa chose his successor, Ntseki, because he was a local. Not just any local, but one who had worked his way up as the as­­sociation’s employee for much of his coaching career.

He had been assistant coach in the under-20 and under-23 teams before becoming Baxter’s assistant in the national team. He also headed Amajimbos, South Africa’s under-17 team. But he had little experience at this high level. Safa trusted him, though.

When Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the 2021 Afcon in Cameroon, however, Safa cut ties with Ntseki, who was Bafana’s 18th full-time coach since South Africa’s readmission to world football in 1992.

It was another botched Afcon qualification campaign. They had not qualified for Afcon in 2010, 2012 or 2017.

The bold and the brash

Enter Broos. Who exactly is he? Coaches such as Benni McCarthy, Gavin Hunt, Pitso Mosimane and even Hervé Renard had been linked to the job. Why not them?

Bafana Broos

Mothobi Mvala of South Africa (left) challenges Victor Osimhen of Nigeria as Ronwen Williams defends his goal during their Africa Cup of Nations semifinal at Peace Stadium in Bouake, Ivory Coast, on 7 February 2024. (Photo: Djaffar Ladjal / BackpagePix)

Why a 71-year-old, in the twilight of his coaching career, when there were so many young and vibrant choices? Public perception was that the Belgian was just using South Africa as a way to make some easy money before he retired. As time has proven, this was far from the reality.

“If Bafana Bafana don’t qualify for the 2023 Afcon, you can kill me,” bellowed Broos boldly during the official announcement that he was the next coach.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hugo Broos — Bafana’s divisive yet efficient coach gets SA back on Afcon stage with World Cup in sights

Three years after that seemingly ludicrous statement, made more absurd by Bafana Bafana’s shyness in qualifying for major tournaments, South Africa reached the semifinals of Afcon for the first time in 24 years.

They were unfortunate to be bundled out of the 2023 Afcon, hosted by Ivory Coast, by Nigeria, who won 4-2 on penalties.

At that introduction to the media in 2021, Broos showed he had done his homework on South Africa. He said they had the tendency to concede first and have to chase the game.

Being on the back foot early on made South Africa vulnerable because of the ageing squad. Which meant they conceded goals cheaply. This was Broos’s assessment, and he wanted to change this.

He did just that, as evidenced by the fact that Bafana Bafana kept four clean sheets from their five games preceding the semi­final loss to Nigeria at Afcon.

A new broom

Once appointed, Broos did away with players who were 30 or older, such as Themba Zwane, Thulani Serero and Andile Jali. Even skipper Thulani Hlatshwayo was not spared by Broos, who was on a mission to rebuild South African football.

On a grand tour around South Africa’s stadiums – trying to watch all the teams – he identified players he felt would pull in the same direction as him.

Broos, alongside his assistant and former Bafana Bafana midfielder Helman Mkhalele, worked through trial and error as they expanded their pool of players.

“When I came to South Africa, first of all, I was a little bit surprised that there were so many old players in the team. So, we had to change [this],” Broos recalled after his team’s loss to Nigeria.

“I had a lot of critics… Because I took players not only from the big teams, but also from the little clubs… [But] we needed some time. It was nearly one year later that we found what we needed. We also changed the style of South African football. We tried to play more direct.”

Once his core squad was crafted, Broos realised he was missing something, a ­creative force who would be the bright spark that complemented Bafana Bafana’s organisational quality. He brought back Zwane in late 2022, who scored a brace to mark his return.

In Ivory Coast, the 34-year-old was exceptional. “We know Themba is a very good player. In the beginning with South Africa, he wasn’t in the selection. But I explained that it was his age, we were building a new team at that moment,” Broos told iDiski Times in 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Brave Bafana win Afcon battle for bronze as goalkeeper Ronwen Williams saves the day

“For me, it was important to [explore] what young players we had. But I have to confirm that, once Themba came here, the way of playing changed.”

When the coach raves so much about you, it’s clear you are firmly in his plans. Broos trusts Zwane wholeheartedly, despite his age. Just as Safa trusted Broos, who won Afcon with Cameroon in 2017, despite his age.

World Cup push

After this mesmerising run at Afcon, Bafana Bafana will now focus their energy on the qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup. The South Africans are grouped with Nigeria, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Benin. To book their ticket to the World Cup, in which they last appeared back in 2010, they must finish at the summit of their group.

They have already played two games, beating Benin 2-1 before being downed 2-0 by Rwanda. In June, Bafana will have an opportunity to claim some sort of revenge over Nigeria for their Afcon heartbreak.

Plus three points, when the two teams face off in what will be the latest round of qualification matches for the global showpiece.

Broos plans to be at that tournament, which is being co-hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico. The Belgian’s contract runs until 2026. 

“As long as things are going the way they are now, why should I stop? I like my job. I like football. So, we will see what the future will bring,” said Broos. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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