South Africa appoint the safe choice
They did not opt for the favourite. They were not brave enough to try someone new. Instead, the South African Football Association (SAFA) went for the safest and cheapest option when they unveiled their new coach for the national team.
Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba was given a four-year deal with the task of qualifying Bafana Bafana for the African Nations Cup (ANC) in 2015 and the 2018 World Cup. Should he last until then, he will be the first South African coach to complete a full four-year campaign.
Mashaba has been in charge of South Africa once before, from 2002 to 2003, when he oversaw the 2004 ANC qualifying campaign but was suspended and then sacked for his handling of overseas-based players. He was also caretaker coach in 1992 and 2001.
In between, Mashaba managed Orlando Pirates, one of South Africa's two big clubs, Swaziland and South Africa's under-23 and under-20 teams. His intricate knowledge of the local setup and the fact that he would come at a much lower price than others seemed to set Mashaba apart from candidates like Carlos Queiroz, Stephen Keshi, Frank Rijkaard and Dick Advocaat.
The last three names dropped out of the race before the final short list was presented to the SAFA's executive committee, leaving the choice between Queiroz and Mashaba. Queiroz reportedly demanded a salary four times what previous coach Gordon Igesund was earning, which would amount to roughly $2.4 million annually. Given the criticism the SAFA has come under for exorbitant expenditure without the expected results, it makes sense that it chose to save money and face.
Mashaba's appointment has been met with celebration from those who remember the relative success of his tenure and believe there's integrity in choosing someone homegrown, and apathy from the rest. Many simply think that no amount of coaching can fix the fundamental problems in Bafana Bafana: players lack commitment to the national side, an overwhelming satisfaction with mediocrity and an administration that is willing to put up with both. The SAFA has given no hint of that changing.
President Danny Jordaan asked the public to be patient with Mashaba, which is the first sign the SAFA will be willing to give him a long rope. It did the same with Igesund, who was tasked with ensuring South Africa reached the final four of the ANC they hosted in 2013 and made it to Brazil. Although Igesund achieved neither, he was allowed to see out his contract.
Igesund took over the role after 2014 World Cup qualifying had already started. At that point, South Africa had registered a draw at home to Ethiopia and another in Gaborone against Botswana. They were expected to win both those matches and it was Igesund's job to resurrect them from there. He inherited a team in trouble so he was cut some slack, but when the disappointments piled up, so did the pressure to get rid of him.
Mashaba is not going to have that luxury. He picks up on a clean slate, while South Africa are at one of their lowest ebbs. They have failed to make a statement on the global stage since Siphiwe Tshabalala's opening goal at the 2010 World Cup. Even their victory over Spain, which came after that, is merely brushed over, as nothing more than a fluke.
What they do have is a lot of opportunity to change that. Qualification for next year's ANC begin in September. Mashaba has time to strategise and the players will have some game time to find form. South Africa's group is tough -- it includes the current champions Nigeria, a tricky trip to Khartoum to meet Sudan and either Congo or Rwanda -- it's but not impossible. The top two teams in each group advance, as well as the best third-place side overall. South Africa should qualify.
But there are a lot of things they should have done and have not. They should have been at the two ANCs before the one they hosted but were not. They should have been at the World Cup more regularly and have not. They should have appointed someone who would bring a different ideology to the national team and did not. That does not mean Mashaba cannot be the person who will lead Bafana Bafana to start doing the things they should do, but there should be no leniency if he does not.