Stuart Baxter is adamant, and insistent, about one thing: there needs to be change – “radical” change.
The South African national football coach was unveiled on May 4 last year for a second stint as Bafana Bafana coach. A month later he led Bafana Bafana to a joyous and memorable 2-0 victory against the mighty Nigerian Super Eagles in Nigeria. In a run of 13 games since, South Africa won five games, lost seven and drew one all the while conceding 16 goals and netting 15 times.
In that time Bafana Bafana have also spluttered, stammered and faltered in their attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2018 African Nations Championship and were dumped out of the Cosafa Cup. So yes, radical change is needed. But what kind of change is needed?
“When I say radical, what I mean is that we’ve got to think differently,” said an impassioned but visibly frustrated Baxter on Tuesday when he outlined his vision for the next year and beyond.
“We’ve got to tidy up the garden. There’s plenty of weeds, and I don’t mean just on the football field, I mean at Safa [South African Football Association] House, I mean with our relationships with the media, I mean with our relationships with the clubs, I mean with our relationships with the players.”
System at fault
With animated hand gestures punctuating and emphasising development and an attitude change, Baxter was frank in his assessment of a “whole system” at fault.
“I’ve looked back – doesn’t matter who was coach – in some way it’s screwed itself up, so whose fault was it? Was it Pitso’s [Mosimane] fault, was it Gordon’s [Igesund] fault, was it Shakes’s [Mashaba] fault or Carlos’s [Parreira], so who’s fault was it?
“I think it’s the whole system, the way we’ve perceived our development is not working and I think we’ve got to get back to that. If that’s radical, that’s radical,” said an exasperated Baxter.
Baxter also revealed that he had left a blueprint on how the system needs to change when he last held the reigns, in 2004 and 2005, and lamented, with a frustrated bang on the table, that if that blueprint was implemented the health of South African football would have been vastly different.
But Baxter has not given up hope. He has submitted two reports to Safa this year outlining what needs to happen for a successful season.
“I’ve put my report to Safa, it’s not a threat or an ultimatum but recommendations for the next two to three years,” he said. The Englishman added that the first four-page report was the “important springboard” while the other was about what needs to happen in the next four years in “bigger brushstrokes”.
“I believe if we get it right it can be so beautiful.”
But right now, it’s not beautiful. Baxter painted a picture of how the cycle of morass perpetuates itself, from the boardroom to players to the media and even the fans.
“There’s this sort of antagonistic approach [between Safa House and the clubs] unless we can have some sort of cooperation, unless Safa and the people that are coaching take a leading role to have a good relationship I don’t think we can go anywhere,” said Baxter, who was coach of two PSL clubs – Kaizer Chiefs and SuperSport United – before joining Bafana again.
He also slated players who were constantly on their phones during camp and just before matches, saying this culture where playing for Bafana is a “reward not an honour” needs to stop.
Throughout the discussion Baxter was quite passionate about bringing new blood into the setup and said that he would do everything he can to encourage talented players to earn experience at the highest level. However, looking at what happens when this sort of “risk” is taken and the team loses is another reason for the culture and attitude to change.
“So we play a friendly international against a side like Mali, for example, and they send an experimental side and we pick our absolute best team, why? Because no one accepts it when we don’t win. And then we win one-nil and we are really, really happy, but we’ve had our best team out, no kids have got experience, but we are really happy for that moment. We go down the line a few years and our best players are racking up the caps and our young ones get a 15 minutes here or there.”
“Now if I get some of these young kids on the field and we lose one-nil. I will have to take that stick; I will have to take that flak... and then we throw the baby out with the bath water [and fire the coach] and we start again, and we replicate that process.”
Despite his frustrated fiery approach to changes that need to happen now, Baxter was equally, if not more, fired up about developing the talented youth and blooding new players.
Baxter announced that he had managed to convince Joel Untersee to play for South Africa. The Benoni-born, Swizz playing youth is contracted to Juventus but has been loaned to Serie B side Empoli. Baxter said he was excited to have the 24-year-old defender on-board after making two attempts to have him play for Bafana instead of Switzerland.
Baxter was also quite irate with talent not being nurtured correctly, again stating that changes need to be made in how we grow talent in South Africa.
“So we say express yourself [to the young players] no, empower him first, give him the basics, make him feel good about himself, give him confidence and then let him express himself. You let him express himself from nothing and its chaos.”
Describing how the team “capitulates” when they are under pressure, Baxter said giving the youngsters the right skills will help them fall back on something when panic sets in.
“If we don’t have the basics, I don’t mean the talent, the basics: mentally, physically, socially, tactically, technically. If we don’t have the basics, if we don’t approach that in the right way then when we get to that ‘bang-boom, ooh-the panic’, then we have nothing to fall back too.”
“We need to commit to having our younger players gel with the players we know have a longer future, the ones that have the right attitude, the ones that don’t want to party when they come on national camp. We want people who are committed to this country, committed to the shirt, committed to development, want to improve,” he said, in an almost pleading tone.
Listen to Baxter talk about youth treatment in South Africa:
Can Baxter do it?
But the question, which Baxter asked himself, is whether he is the right man to lead this charge of blooding new talent?
“I’ve told the FA [Safa] that I could stay or I could go, they could fire me or I could resign. But whoever is the coach, for me, if they don’t take this sort of step and say this is what we should do, I don’t think we have a future. I think what we’ll do is keep saying we’ve got talent, saying we’ve got potential, and why are we not fulfilling our potential,” said Baxter.
And he will get to prove that he can make the hard decisions and live with the consequences when Bafana, even if it’s not on his own terms. Bafana Bafana are scheduled to play in a friendly tournament against Zambia, Zimbabawe and Angola between March 19 and 27. Baxter was hoping to play in the King’s Cup in Thailand where South Africa would have met the hosts‚ Slovakia and United Arab Emirates, but Safa decide otherwise. He said that he was “massively upset” when he found out about it because he does not see much value in playing teams that they’ve played many times before. He was hoping to learn and to teach the younger players different styles of play as they would have taken on a team from Europe, the Gulf and Asia.
“Three different styles‚ humid weather conditions‚ a full house. It would have been a great opportunity.”
Listen to Baxter talk about what he has been doing during January and February
At the end of the day Baxter knows that he has one main goal, and it’s not an objective he got from Safa.
“I want to give the South African people a major tournament. That’s my mandate. And if I don’t do it you won’t need to say ‘well I think he’s not the right coach’ because I won’t be here,” he said with a fiery expression.
And without going into specifics about how he will deliver on that promise Baxter ended with a line that, well, seems a little clichéd now:
“I think we have chance but I think there is only one way and that’s by thinking differently, by thinking radically differently.”