Safa chief executive says coach Stuart Baxter changed his mind about friendlies ahead of Afcon kickoff, but the team is ready to make its mark
Safa has dangled a carrot in front of Bafana Bafana players as further impetus to win the Afcon tournament. Each player will receive R320 000 if they reach the Last 16 stage, and will earn up to R920 000 each if they lift the cup.
Safa chief executive officer Russell Paul told City Press that the federation had done everything to make sure the team were well prepared for the 24-nation continental championships, which kicked off on Friday. Bafana’s first game is against Ivory Coast tomorrow at 4.30pm.
Paul said the contract issue was dealt with a long time ago, but ahead of Bafana’s opening Afcon game, all talk has been about the team’s lack of sufficient warm-up matches before the tournament.
However, amid the chaotic preparations, Safa distanced itself from the shambolic build-up that left head coach Stuart Baxter seething at one point.
After three weeks in a training camp that started in Johannesburg on June 3 and ended in Dubai last weekend, Bafana have only played one warm-up match.
On Friday, Paul stopped just short of pointing a finger at Baxter for not sticking to his original plan to prepare the team.
Paul said Safa had initially lined up friendly matches “as per the coach’s request”, but Baxter changed his mind and opted for a longer camp.
“The games were all provided as per the coach’s request,” said Paul.
He said the first confirmed friendly for Bafana was against Zambia last month, but Baxter’s change of mind resulted in the Under-23s playing that game in Durban.
This was just ahead of the Cosafa Cup, where coach David Notoane’s 2020 Olympics hopefuls were sent to represent the country, while Baxter held a separate training camp with the senior team in Fourways, Johannesburg.
Bafana were still hoping to play either Zambia, Zimbabwe or Uganda before their departure for a camp in the Middle East, but Paul pointed out that “it was difficult to get the scheduling past the Cosafa Cup” because the three nations already had games lined up.
A match against Afcon hosts Egypt was also on the cards.
“A game against Egypt was basically confirmed for June 19. Egypt felt it was too close to the opening game [against Zimbabwe on Friday] and asked for it to be moved to June 16, but we had already scheduled to play Ghana in Dubai on that date,” said Paul.
The goalless draw against Ghana saw every member of the 23-man Bafana squad given a run.
Things went from bad to worse for Bafana when Angola pulled out of a scheduled friendly match on Wednesday.
“There was nothing we could do with the cancelled Angola [friendly] game because they cancelled an hour after we had finalised the arrangement.”
Shortly after the Afcon draw in April, Baxter’s wish was to get warm-up matches in line with the opponents they would face in Group D.
Initially, the Brit had outlined a rough plan that would consider the Cosafa Cup as one of the preparation options, but the regional tournament entry was passed on to the Under-23s.
Bafana’s Afcon preparations would have culminated in the team playing against what Baxter had anticipated would be an “opponent that is like what we are going to face in the first game”.
But, given the tight time frame and the fact that most players where arriving in camp at the end of a long season, Baxter was bound to experience challenges, Paul said. He said all the other aspects regarding the team were under control, including the fact that all 23 selected players had signed performance contracts before they left the country.
But Bafana are expected to put all the negativity behind them when they face the west African powerhouse tomorrow.
Bafana landed in Cairo on Tuesday morning and immediately stepped up their preparations.
Baxter was quoted as saying that he would have a nice selection headache after what he saw at training. But he is expected to stick to the side that did duty against Libya in their last qualifying game, with captain Thulani Hlatshwayo leading the team from the back, and Percy Tau and Lebo Mothiba leading the attack.
Despite being sidelined at club level by Bidvest Wits, goalkeeper Darren Keet is set to keep his spot in the team ahead of SuperSport United and PSL goalkeeper of the season Ronwen Williams.
Bongani Zungu, who is fit again, will most likely start on the bench, with Dean Furman and Kamohelo Mokotjo as the preferred central midfielders.
Baxter is of the view that Ivory Coast and Morocco are more “unsecured” in the group and warned that Bafana’s clash with Namibia on Friday would be an intense affair given their regional rivalry.