As we enter another exciting international break, I have decided to tell you a little more about my time as Bafana Bafana coach. As everyone knows, I was linked with the job for many years before being given the honour in June 2012.
Much has been made about Hugo Broos’ squad selection for the two upcoming friendlies against Guinea and France, both to be played in Europe this week. The first thing I will say is that these friendly matches are the perfect time for a coach to experiment.
The result is not important in comparison to what you can learn about your players. Their attitude, their temperament, their ability to adapt to tactical changes in real-time, do they have the speed of thought and tactical understanding to play a specific role at the international level?
There is a whole host of factors that need to be assessed, all critical in helping you establish your strongest lineup. This however cannot be achieved overnight.
In my time as coach, we lost seven of the 18 friendly matches we played. We had friendlies away to Brazil, Poland and Morocco and home matches against Norway, Nigeria and Brazil. I was always eager to play against strong opponents, even if it meant we lost matches. It would have been easy to play against lower-ranked teams, take the win and keep my job secure. But it was more valuable for me in the bigger picture, to face the challenges and get a better understanding of our limitations in certain departments.
On the back of that, I think it is brilliant that Broos has the opportunity to test his players against the world champions, France. Even if a heavy defeat were to follow, he will learn a lot and should not be judged on the results in friendlies anyway.
The Challenges of International Football
Unlike club football, where you get a whole season to prepare your players, international football brings real challenges. You will often only have your squad arrive in camp a couple of days before you play. You don’t have the luxury of being able to work with them over prolonged periods, preparing them and familiarising them with the patterns and tactics you are looking to employ.
You select the players that are in form and that you believe have the capability to successfully carry out your plans, and then with time, you can see who best suits certain roles as they adapt to the playing style.
Before the 2014 CHAN tournament, I barely had a team! This is testimony to some of the challenges an international coach faces.
With the 2014 CHAN matches not being played on FIFA dates, clubs could withdraw their players at will. Originally, it seemed I would be without players from Orlando Pirates, Ajax Cape Town, SuperSport United and AmaZulu. Then the PSL fixtures changed and at the last moment, everyone else withdrew their players too.
The night before the first match, I only had half a dozen players in camp. We couldn’t even have a full training session before that tournament started. Thankfully, in the end, some clubs did release their players in time to feature in the opening match.
Just two losses!
In my time in charge, Bafana Bafana only lost two official matches. I am excluding friendly matches here for the reasons listed above. We lost 2-1 away to Ethiopia in a crucial World Cup qualifier on a nightmare trip which I told you about before.
The only other competitive match I lost was against Nigeria in the CHAN tournament with all those disruptions. Seven of my nine defeats were in friendly matches where we were preparing for qualifiers and the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.
Which other country changes coaches after losing just two competitive matches?!
That’s not to mention after a fantastic win against then World Champions, Spain. We were really sharp tactically in that match, sending them into wide areas and blocking off the centre of the pitch.
My final two matches
With my Bafana Bafana contracting winding down and no renewal being discussed, my final two matches came against Australia and New Zealand in 2014.
I used those clashes to give opportunities to some new players who were knocking on the door and deserving of a call-up. Themba Zwane made his debut, for example, after some fine form for Mpumalanga Black Aces.
In 2019, when I watched the Africa Cup of Nations with Stuart Baxter in charge, I saw five of the players selected on that tour: Ronwen Williams, Buhle Mkhwanazi, Hlompho Kekana, Bongani Zungu and Themba Zwane.
The question is what happened in the five years between then.
Mkhwanazi did not play again until 2018. Williams made only four more appearances between starting against the Kiwis and the opening match of the 2019 AFCON. Zungu played just 15 matches in the next five years and even Kekana went almost two years after those matches without featuring again.
Zwane also had a run of 25 matches in a row where he didn’t appear for Bafana between his debut and the tournament in Egypt.
The key takeaway here is that coaches don’t get given enough time. The more chopping and changing that happens, the less continuity there is for players. A chance was lost for them to gain experience during those five years.
I was one of the only coaches who was not fired but who simply did not have their contract renewed. I only lost one qualifier which meant I did not meet my mandate to qualify for the world cup.
I took over a team who had drawn 1-1 at home with Ethiopia under Pitso Mosimane and then 1-1 in Botswana under Steve Komphela. Make no mistake, I am not blaming them for not reaching the World Cup.
If anything, both of them deserved more time at the helm too. Look at what they have gone on to achieve since then!
I really hope Hugo Broos is given at least four years with the team as I think he is doing a reasonably good job so far and can only get better over time.
Let’s get behind him and not judge him too much on results in friendlies.
I think the same leeway should apply to the players. Ronwen Williams spent a long time being criticised for being in goal for a 5-0 friendly loss to Brazil. If Kylian Mbappe, arguably the world’s best player right now, gives a Bafana Bafana defender the runaround in Lille next Tuesday, let’s not judge that player too harshly.
There is no substitute for time on the training ground.
International players arrive knackered after a flight, have to rest, you can only do a light session and set pieces and then you have a match. Then you have recovery days, more light training, another match and then the players are off back to their clubs.
The point I am trying to make overall is that international coaches need at least a four-year cycle with the team. You don’t go from being a good coach to a bad coach overnight. When a coach is appointed, they need to be given all the support and time to get their ideas and philosophy across.
That’s it for this week. Make sure you head to www.soccer6.co.za for soccer Tips and Pools.
Yours in Football.
Coach Gordon Igesund