When Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba took over the South African football team’s coaching reins from Gordon Igesund, he arrived with swagger and, as all new coaches do, brought with him new hope. It started with a honeymoon phase in late 2014 when South Africa won three and drew three, all Afcon qualifiers, in Mashaba’s first six games in charge.
But by the time the team returned, empty-handed, from the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015, that honeymoon phase had begun to fizzle out. Mashaba quickly went from the man who couldn’t be beaten to the man who couldn’t beat anybody as South Africa failed to win even a single fixture in their group.
Fast-forward just over 12 months and things have got even worse for the charismatic coach. South Africa are on the brink of failing to qualify for next year’s edition of the continental tournament and Mashaba is under fire from the public and the press. The coach has, somewhat predictably, gone on the defensive in his response.
It has been a tumultuous few months for the man who, just over a year ago, was the darling who many believed could turn around the national team.
He has accused the media of “having agendas” against him. He has also refused to take responsibility for his team’s inability to shut up shop once they manage to go ahead, as they did in the first match against Cameroon. He even went so far as to have a pop at some of his players, which resulted in FC Twente midfielder Kamohelo Mokotjo saying he will not be honouring any future South African call-ups.
Mokotjo took to Instagram to post the news after telling Dutch media that the coach has a “problem” with him and “only selected him to silence the critics”. The midfielder was hurt after being sidelined during South Africa’s recent back-to-back draws against Cameroon. It is not the first time these two have had a run-in either. Last year, Mashaba called the 25-year-old “heavy” and “sluggish” in the months leading up to the 2015 African Nations Cup finals in Equatorial Guinea last January.
At time, Mokotjo hit back and called the comments “disrespectful” and earned a recall six months later after the South African Football Association (SAFA) intervened. It’s therefore no surprise that he has decided to tell the national team where to get off. And Mokotjo is not just running his mouth either – he returned straight to the starting line-up for FC Twente and helped his side come from 2-0 down to beat Willem II 3-2.
It is not clear if there will be another SAFA intervention, but the fact is that it should not have happened a second time. The unfortunate nature of club football, and the weak rand, mean that the national team needs Mokotjo more than he needs them. National pride is a manufactured concept in international sport these days and the midfielder can quite happily earn a very decent living overseas without having to put up with his clash of personalities with Mashaba.
But not all players have been struck by Mashaba’s wrath. In fact, after their goalless draw in the second leg of Afcon qualifiers against Cameroon, the coach laid the issue squarely at the feet of the South African Premier League.
“It is most unfortunate that when the national team didn’t win, the blame comes to the national team. The problem with scoring goals is that almost all coaches in the PSL, you’ll hear them after a game saying that not scoring is haunting them. Those are the things you cannot really address in the national team.”
But the PSL season is not done yet and the average number of goals per match (2.39) is already better than the average for the previous season (2.31) and a drastic increase on the 2012-13 season (1.1). And, if goals are the problem, why are influential players like Mokotjo not being selected? Mashaba simply shouldered the blame.
“We need to direct this to the office of the technical director as it deals with these kinds of things. As a national team coach, your [duty] is to go and play tournaments. You don’t often get a break from these games, you always have to play official matches,” he added.
These comments came just a few days after South Africa did manage to score two goals, but failed to defend. While drawing against Cameroon is no mean feat, it is the manner in which Bafana Bafana drew that is problematic. Going from one extreme to the next in just a few days points to a bigger problem all while Mashaba will point at his record.
And it’s a pretty impressive record at first glance. Since Mashaba took over, Bafana have played 30 and won 16 (not counting the three “practice” matches against Lesotho and Malawi in May last year). But here’s the rub: half of those wins came in friendlies and the problems for South Africa all started after being knocked out of Afcon last year. Since then, Mashaba has presided over just five wins in competitive fixtures. Two of those matches were CHAN qualifiers against Mauritius while three wins came against Angola – a CHAN qualifier and two 2018 World Cup preliminary qualifiers).
While Mashaba deserves some leniency – his mandate is to build for the 2019 World Cup and the national team’s troubles go far deeper than two draws against Cameroon – he should also know better. As somebody who was once touted as a sort of father figure to the youngsters of South African football and as somebody who has been around the block more than a few times, the coach should know better than to have a pop at all and sundry. His indignation is only going to make an already irked public fall out of love with him even more. DM