Editor's Blog 29.8.2017 09:42 am

Crucial period for Baxter’s Bafana

Stuart Baxter during the South African national men's soccer team training session at FNB Stadium. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Stuart Baxter during the South African national men's soccer team training session at FNB Stadium. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

I had the privilege of being in Cape Verde in June 2005, when Stuart Baxter’s Bafana Bafana pulled off a 2-1 win in Praia in a 2006 World Cup/Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, courtesy of goals from Benni McCarthy and Delron Buckley.

It was one of my more interesting experiences as a journalist attempting to cover a match – the media box was behind one of the stands in the stadium, which was all very well while the fans were sitting down, but the moment the match kicked off, they all stood up, meaning I couldn’t see anything, unless I stood on a box (there was no other furniture available) and peered through a tiny window at the top of the room. The entire game consisted of an exercise routine of standing on this box to watch the action, and then frantically climbing down to type out notes on my laptop.

Other memories of Cape Verde are far less anxious, sandy beaches on under-populated islands that those who had been there compared to the West Indies.

Baxter’s Bafana of that era would ultimately miss out on qualifying for the World Cup in Germany, to a Ghanaian side powered by the genius of Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah.

Now Baxter, of course, is back at the helm of Bafana and back on the road to Praia, hoping this time to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018. He has been given a decent head-start by Shakes Mashaba, who picked up four points from Bafana’s opening two qualifiers before ultimately being cast aside by the South African Football Association.

Baxter has opened his latest stint in the Bafana hot-seat well, winning an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Nigeria in June, but now comes a key period on the road to Russia 2018. Bafana really need to win these two away-and-home games against Cape Verde (they play in Praia on Friday and in Durban on September 5), to put them in a position of strength in terms of making it through qualification for a World Cup finals for the first time since Clive Barker guided the team to Japan/South Korea 2002.

Cape Verde were an up-and-coming continental force back in 2005, at the start of a journey that would take them to No 31 in the world in March 2016, when they were also ranked as the No 1 side in Africa. In this period, the islanders, helped by a recruitment policy that saw them scour the European leagues for players with Cape Verde ancestry, qualified and reached the quarterfinals of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and qualified again for the 2015 tournament. They may have made it to the World Cup in Brazil too, but for an administrative error that saw them field an ineligible player in a 2-0 qualifying win over Tunisia.

Of late, however, it has not gone so well for Cape Verde –they lost their first two qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup and coach Luis Antunes is under serious pressure heading into Friday’s game.

Hopefully Bafana can capitalise and propel themselves on the road to Russia – I think they might just do it, but they need to put the result against Nigeria out of their minds. Too often, of late, Bafana have slipped up against opposition they are expected to beat.

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