Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba’s gait is half-limp – probably a consequence of his days as a solid defender, captaining Soweto giants Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows – and half bounce, like the old township gentlemen, with shoes so shiny you can see your reflection in them.
Born in Orlando East 64 years ago, Mashaba is a street-smart and no-nonsense coach, much like he was as a player.
That’s how he has managed Bafana Bafana, transforming them from a team that could barely limp – with their confidence and state lower than a snake’s crotch – to an outfit that not only has an extra bounce in their step, but is on a high.
Bafana Bafana flew to Equatorial Guinea, via Gabon where they had been preparing since January 7, as one of the favourites to win the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) despite being grouped with Algeria, the number one ranked side on the continent and traditional powers Ghana and Senegal.
A few months ago, before Mashaba took over in September, South Africans would have watched this tournament with their eyes covered, only peeking to assess the damage. No! No! No! Scratch that. Rewind a few months and South Africans could only watch Bafana Bafana in the Afcon purely as hosts, like they did in 2013. Before that, the outfit last qualified for the tournament outside its shores in 2008 where they returned from Ghana bottom of their group behind Tunisia, Senegal and the home team.
But this time around even though the group opponents are more or less the same, with Algeria replacing Tunisia, the minimum target is a top two finish in Group C to advance to the quarterfinals. The manner in which Bafana Bafana qualified, leaving the defending champions Nigeria dead and topping their group unbeaten ahead of Congo and Sudan, has raised the confidence levels and expectations. Mashaba started the turn-around even before Bafana Bafana kicked a ball in his second spell as national team head coach.
He shook things up when he dropped the tried-and-tested, in keeping with his mandate of building a team for the future. He called up three of the national Under-20 side members – Dumisani Msibi, Ayabulela Magqwaka and Rivaldo Coetzee – that he had guided to qualifying for the African Youth Championship to be played later this year in Senegal. Coetzee went on to cement a place in the senior team, and is in the squad for the Afcon.
Less than a year into Mashaba’s reign, the record for the youngest player to don the Bafana Bafana jersey – which was held by Aaron Mokoena for 15 years, after he made his debut as an 18-year-old in 1999 – has been broken twice. Coetzee first broke it a month before he turned 18 – against Congo in Pointe-Noire on September 10 last year in the Afcon qualifiers – only for his friend Fragie Lakay to surpass it in the Nelson Mandela Challenge against Ivory Coast on November 30.
Mashaba led the new-look Bafana Bafana to Sudan in his first match in the qualifiers. The outfit returned from Khartoum with three points and a 3-0 win.
Bongani Ndulula was among the scorers in that encounter. “Drogba”, as the 25-year-old striker is nicknamed, is a perfect example of Mashaba’s coaching acumen.
Ndulula has struggled in domestic football, from his time at Pirates to his current home AmaZulu, where he has scored a paltry four goals in their 16 Premiership matches. But, under Mashaba, he has been a prolific striker. In his days at Under-23 level, Ndulula scored 15 goals in 14 matches to equal Siyabonga Nomvethe’s record. The former Bafana Bafana striker however notched his tally in 25 matches, 11 more games than it took Ndulula.
Ndlula’s exploits in the qualifiers of the 2015 Afcon qualifiers saw him included on the long-list for the Confederation of African Football (Caf) Africa-based Player-of-the-Year during a period in which Bafana Bafana removed Nigeria’s aura of invincibility when coming up against the Super Eagles.
Mashaba has also removed another aura of invincibility: that of players who think they can walk into the squad.
Thulani Serero is the latest to feel that. The Ajax Amsterdam midfielder allegedly refused to turn up for the mini-camp on December 26 last year, four days before Mashaba would announce the Afcon squad, even though he was in the country. He was dropped for the Afcon like May Mahlangu and Ayanda Patosi when they failed to honour their call ups previously.
Serero’s stance must have reminded Mashaba of how he lost his job in his first Bafana Bafana spell just over 10 years ago. The South African Football Association (Safa) fired Mashaba – despite his charges qualifying for the 2004 Afcon in Tunisia undefeated – for daring to take a tough stance with prima donnas.
The English-based duo of Mark Fish and Benni McCarthy refused to arrive two weeks before the tournament, as per Fifa rules. Both eventually pulled out of the squad when Mashaba refused permission for them to come and go as they pleased. Instead of supporting their coach, Safa told him to recall the players or face the axe. Mashaba preferred the axe to going against his principles.
The 64-year-old values dedicated players who exhibit pride in representing their country, over anything. He has cultivated that passion in the squad that will play most people’s tournament favourites, Algeria, in their opening match on January 19.
Bafana Bafana may have limped out of past competitions, but there is a strong belief that they can fly out of this tournament as champions.
Main Photograph: Bafana Bafana take on Mexico in the opening match of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in Johannesburg South Africa. Current Bafana coach Shakes Mashaba has swept away many of the team’s old guard in recent months – by Celso Flores