Coach Molefi Ntseki must have, now more than ever, realised the huge responsibility on his shoulders to lead Bafana Bafana as each and every move he makes is put under a microscope.
If the reaction to his recent squad announcement is anything to go by, you will understand where I am coming from. Bafana will face Ghana and Sudan in back-to-back Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers later this month and, as usual, his team selection didn’t escape criticism and scrutiny from the general public. As football supporters, I don’t think we give coaches enough respect and freedom for their job and this is not coming from a bad place at all. I know we all mean well because we are so passionate about this Beautiful Game. We love this game and we understand that football is a game of emotions. We all invest a lot of emotions into it and it is even more so when it comes to the national team. Everyone who supports the national team has club affiliation. In an ideal world, everyone would love to see their favourite players representing the country and nothing beats watching your team players dominating your national team.
There are players we all want to see in the national team, regardless of their form, but what I would like for us to think about is the difference between coaching at national team level versus club level. Coach Ntseki has received a lot of backlash for, among others, including Itumeleng Khune in his latest squad despite his well-documented club football struggles. I’m not, in any way, suggesting that everyone who is against this move is wrong but merely trying to bring another side to the argument. Coach Ntseki left a couple of players out of his squad, players that many would have expected to see in the team based on their current club form. The fact that only Craig Martin made the cut from Cape Town City is one of the talking points, considering how dominant coach Jan Olde Riekerink’s midfielders have been in the league so far. It comes as no surprise that a lot of people expected to see the likes of Thabo Nodada, Mduduzi Mdantsane, Surprise Ralani and Thato Mokeke being recognised for their outstanding performances, but that didn’t happen.
All these arguments are valid, but let’s put ourselves in coach Ntseki’s shoes for once. The man is playing two crucial qualifiers, not international friendlies. There’s a lot at stake and club form doesn’t count much at this stage. In fact, it is experience that will see you through and qualifiers are not a platform to experiment. We can’t not go to the next Afcon, so the coach has to select a team that he trusts and believes will get the job done. Now is a case of horses for courses. Khune’s mere presence makes a difference. The coach is looking for players who will make an immediate impact in the team, on or off the field, and he doesn’t have time to hold hands of new players. Going into these two games, even the senior players will not have time to guide new faces because they are under tremendous pressure to ensure that we win both games. As a head coach, Ntseki has a responsibility to protect the players and that means he can’t make everyone happy. If he brings in more than enough new faces and they crumble, he will have to pick up the pieces and that could easily destroy the player’s confidence. I’m pretty sure that coach Ntseki has been keeping an eye on a number of players who are doing well and has made them aware of it either directly or through their coaches, so that they know they are on his radar. Should we win the next two games, that would ease the pressure and that’s when the coach can have the luxury of calling up new and deserving players into the team. For now, let’s give the man and his charges all the support they need and understand that being on form at club level doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for the national team. Recruiting players can’t be done at the expense of results.
There are countless examples of players who were household names who were on top of their game at club level, only to be completely different at national team level. That’s because the two levels are different and, as much as it is important to freshen up the team, it is very important to note that you don’t change too much too soon. There’s a reason coach Clive Barker remains the most successful Bafana coach to this day, a quarter of a century since he last coached the national team. There’s also a reason why his starting line-up and team selection were so predictable. There’s a reason so many good players didn’t make his team. If he was out to please everyone, he wouldn’t have tasted the success that he enjoyed with Bafana. There were squad members who would never start regardless of how well they were doing at club level and that’s because the coach knew the importance of consistency and not meddling with his team. His team selection was so predictable that we all knew what to expect and there were hardly any surprises, yet he still managed to introduce new faces from time to time, only when it was right to do so. That’s the kind of situation coach Ntseki would surely like to see himself in. So, as much as we all have a right to criticise and air our views, let’s please do so constructively and fairly. I hope this will make us think and help us to let coach Ntseki be!