Coach Baxter may have missed a trick when he met the media this week

08 March 2018 - 06:00 By Marc Strydom
Bafana Bafana head coach Stuart Baxter. File photo
Bafana Bafana head coach Stuart Baxter. File photo
Image: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

Stuart Baxter this week sensibly courted a media who, after last year’s World Cup failure, had become varying degrees of hostile, the way journalists are best reached – via their stomachs with a fancy hotel breakfast.

And he said a lot of right things. But it was what he did not say – or barely did, and then only as an afterthought – that came across as wrong note to a well-intentioned tune.

One seems to end up comparing Baxter to his predecessor, Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba, too often. Sometimes it is inevitable though. Mashaba, after big fights with the media would come back after a lull of Bafana activity and resume charging, like an ANC bull to a red EFF beret.

Baxter, to his credit, as Bafana are set to begin 2018 with friendlies at the end of March, called for a ceasefire.

He rightly pointed out many failings in SA football. But he seemed to slip up by neglecting, except as an afterthought, to admit that in the Russia 2018 undertaking in isolation, his own faults, especially poor selections, had contributed to a self-implosion of a campaign that was there for the taking when he replaced Mashaba.

Most people would not disagree with any of what Baxter said needs to be put right in SA football.

He refreshingly undertook to fast-track youngsters into Bafana as a move geared at shaking loose of SA’s Groundhog Day of failure and culture of suppressing up-and-coming players because ‘they are not ready’.

He said development needs to be improved, though did not offer much in details of where and how.

He said the way Safa have blundered player call-ups, manner in which national coaches have not travelled to watch foreign-based players, the antagonism where clubs call Safa unprofessional, and Safa calls clubs unpatriotic, have to all end.

He talked of the perpetual cycle of these factors dooming Bafana coaches to failure, as the media blames the coach, who gets fired, but the circumstances creating the downfall remain the same.

He pointed to Bafana’s suspect mental strength – shown in the crucial World Cup defeats against Cape Verde that crippled the Russia campaign – and said this is problem that has persisted from well before his arrival.

He said culturally “we accept that before the game players are on their telephones organising their contracts”. Valid point. We know that Bongani Zungu had done just that in Cape Verde finalising a move from Portugal to Amiens in France.

But he did not did not admit his own team selections played a role in the World Cup failure.

It was, like saying he never had a mandate from Safa to reach the World Cup, ill-considered not to. Because then all he’d said, all of it correct, was tinged by sounding like a deflection.

Baxter, perhaps, like his predecessor, could do with a personal advisor who genuinely understands the press.

If he had one, they might have whispered in his ear before the breakfast: “‘Stuart, make sure you begin by admitting you made mistakes in the World Cup qualifying campaign, and accept full responsibility.

“‘You can bring in mitigating factors, like you were new to the job. Just make sure you say it. Even of you don’t believe it (few coaches ever do) – just say it. You will win 20 friends around that table immediately if you do’.”

But Baxter didn’t. Well, he did, kind of, as part of trying to stress that the points he was raising weren’t meant as a deflection.

“I’m a part of it. I must take the responsibility, because that’s where it finishes – here. And I will,” he said.

“The big picture doesn’t mean: “OK, don’t look at me, look at the bigger picture over there. Don’t look at me and my failings against Cape Verde. Don’t look at me. Look at the bigger picture over there because then maybe you’ll not see the stuff that I’m doing’.

“No, it’s not that. The bigger picture is to say, ‘Well, can we make that leap and not fall into the abyss’. Because I don’t think we’ve got that much time.

“I said it when I was here the first time (in 2004 and 2005). Can you imagine if we’d started it then? But now we’ve got to do it.”

That sort of cleverness, or perhaps lack of it, with the media, can be so crucial for a Bafana coach, for whom the job is never just about what happens on the field, but, in terms of public sentiment and support, off it too.

By the nature of the job, they have to be politicians as much as coaches. (Read: Don’t appoint Quinton Fortune your assistant).

Baxter did the right thing making sure, as Bafana resume after four months’ inactivity, he engaged the media after the immense noise the World Cup failure naturally had produced.

The one thing he really needed to say, though, and from the get-go, came as an afterthought. It seemed an opportunity missed, because at the heart of it, what Baxter did have to say right may well be correct.

Perhaps SA football is at a crossroads where it either becomes a revived Welsh rugby, or a dead West Indies cricket.