Bafana Bafana coach Ntseki cautiously optimistic on football’s return

Bafana Bafana head coach Molefi Ntseki is excited at the news that football is likely to return soon in South Africa.

This comes after Minister of Sport and Recreation Nathi Mthethwa gave the PSL the go ahead for clubs to start training, provided they respect health protocols and safety measures as stipulated by the Disaster Management Act regulations.

Bafana Bafana were last in action on 17 November 2019 in the 1-0 victory over Sudan in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers – four days earlier they faced Ghana in Cape Coast in the same competition.

The next scheduled matches were the back-to-back qualifiers against Sao Tome e Principe scheduled for the end of March this year – but the coronavirus pandemic put paid to all sporting activities around the world.

Ntseki had already announced his squad to take on Sao Tome, and had made nine changes to the group that faced Ghana and Sudan. He believes there was excitement galore leading to the camp, with the likes of Itumeleng Khune, George Maluleka, Andile Jali and Thabo Matlaba making a return after a long absence.

SAFA Media spoke to Ntseki, who has been home in Bloemfontein since the start of the lockdown.


Coach you must be excited at hearing that South African football could return very soon?
Molefi Ntseki: I must admit, the last three months have not been easy, and not been the same. In simple terms ‘this is unacceptable the way the coronavirus has brought the whole sports world to a complete standstill. (he laughs…)

When the leagues around the world were stopped, it was a serious setback for all the football loving people – players, administrators, fans, sponsors, club bosses, I mean everyone.

The move affected all stakeholders in a very negative way, a way never seen before.

This pandemic not only stopped sport dead in its tracks, but life almost came to a standstill – workers could not go to work, children had to pulled from schools – a lot happened and we may take time to recover.


From a South African perspective?
Look, when we heard that leagues around the world are going to start, we were overjoyed even though we were a bit skeptical in some instances. But so far we have seen the Germans are continuing, and have now been joined by the Italians, the Spanish and tonight it is the turn of the English Premier League.

For the national teams, we are still a long way off, but that is the best news – that we will go back to something that we all love.

In South Africa teams have been given the go ahead to start training, and that what we have been waiting for, for so long.

Going back to the field is a clear indication that we are slowly starting to overcome the challenge facing us, the unseen enemy.

Unfortunately, there is a strong likelihood that there wont be any supporters to cheer on the players, but it is understandable – we can’t have everything in one go under the circumstances.

The players will have to adjust and perhaps get used to it – I guess that will be another new normal.


That said, there is hope for national teams…
Of course yes, but there is a still a long way to go because there are many differences between club level and national team level football.

National teams will have to watch closely the procedures implemented at club level – and if the health protocols are working with clubs, we will have to apply them in the national teams in one way or the other.

I believe CAF and FIFA are monitoring the situation very closely.

The other challenge is that, for instance, when Bafana Bafana has to travel to Ghana it will involve a lot of things – where to camp as a group, protocols and safety measures in place, travel from the base to the airport; then airport protocols, flight protocols, foreign land airport protocols, hotel protocols away, match protocols, and when we return it is the same drill – and that could be too much to bear, and probably expensive.

That is why I say it may be a while before national teams are back in action, but there is hope and we have to keep it alive.


So for now we can’t even begin to think of dates…
There are too many challenges currently facing us when it comes to the AFCON and World Cup qualifiers.

Both CAF and FIFA are unable to set dates as yet, and it is understandable because football is not back in action as a whole – remember some leagues were cancelled (France, Belgium, Scotland).

When the games were stopped, we had no choice and we were not in control.

It is still the same to this date, we have no control and we should not be worried about things we can’t control. The games were suspended in March, then the June date was called off and we can’t predict the September dates but we have to remain hopeful.

It is a big worry that we can’t come up with a solution for all Confederations – maybe FIFA will come out and say each Confederations must do what works for them, within the statutes of health and safety protocols.

The reason is simple – it is winter in South Africa and we are told that the numbers will spike in August or September, you might find in Sao Tome they don’t have cases anymore, and in Ghana they have less, so it is a serious challenge for CAF, and in turn, for FIFA to just open the fields and say go and play.


That then puts pressure on the AFCON tournament, which is scheduled for January 2020…
Precisely! If we can’t play the qualifiers in September, then I don’t see how will we have the tournament in January. In my view, the AFCON won’t be played in January and could be moved to June – it’s original date – and this will now affect Europe-based players as their clubs may refuse to release them, and then we have the debate all over again of Club vs Country.

The way I see it, the remaining four AFCON matches will need two FIFA weeks – even if it’s back to back, provided the clubs agree.

The greatest challenge is that the corona virus affects each country differently – which makes dealing with it all the more difficult in terms of returning to the field.

If there is no play this year, then we may have to use March or April to complete the remaining matches and have the tournament in June – but FIFA has to provide leadership in that regard as they also need dates for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Depending on how many matches are played, this may put a lot of strain on the players, as they also have to try and cover the backlog at club level.

There will be a massive workload on players, which will lead to injuries – bearing in mind that they are only going back to training now after two months of inactivity – hence the five subs rule will be key to avoid fatigue.

Having said that, it is a question of playing the wait and see game.

We know we have challenges, and we are fully aware of them but we have stay positive.

The start of leagues around the world gives hope to both CAF and FIFA.


Surely Corona Virus had some negatives and positives.
That is a fact! Let us start with the negatives – we didn’t get a chance to play what I believe was a strong team as we were pumped up for the Sao Tome clash. Everybody was eagerly looking forward to that match because if you do the maths we know that back to back wins would have pushed us to nine points with two games remaining, now the momentum may be gone.

The positives – remember we hit the ground running as a team, played against Ghana and Sudan, did some analysis on those matches while looking forward to the next fixtures, so there was no time to rest – but now here we are taking stock of the past in a relaxed way and plotting out the future with good analysis.

The other positive is that the players that missed out on the squad because of injury or loss of form have a chance to recover without pressure. They are able to do rehab with worrying about the next match.

This situation has given us time to work on ourselves, and also profile opponents properly.


For you personally how has this period been like?
I was excited because the build-up to the cancelled camp was very good, and there were a lot of positives and hype because there were some new faces in the team. We were all excited and looking forward to the game against Sao Tome – unfortunately it was stopped abruptly.

I believe we had selected a very strong squad that was going to bring good results. But we have to soldier on and keep believing.


Will you select the same squad again when we resume?
You cannot answer that with a yes or a no – there are a lot of things hanging around selection. We have to once again have a look at the players and see how they are performing after the resumption of the league then take it from there.

Let’s us wait and see.


What have you been up to since the start of the lockdown?
I have been doing a lot of reading – books on football and on life in general.

I have had time to reflect on the challenges ahead and perhaps how to tackle them.

I have also been watching a lot of past football matches without any pressure, and doing analysis accordingly.

I have been in contact with coaches about some of the players, to find out how they are doing, how they are coping.

So it has been a busy period indeed.

We have been dong a lot of more research on our AFCON opponents – especially Sao Tome who we know little about  – we had to dig deeper to get more information.

We also didn’t forget out World Cup opponents – spoke to other coaches to see how much they knew about them.


Family time?
This has been the best period for me family-wise. Since moving to Johannesburg six year ago to join SAFA, this is the first time I have been home for so long, previously I never got to spend more than a month with them. So on that score, I can excitedly say this has been one of the most fulfilling periods, and I can add it to one of the positives of the lockdown.

When I joined the Association, one of my sons was one year old, today he is seven – so it is great to be afforded an opportunity to spend time with family, even though it is under different circumstances. We must always remember that family is important.

I have now been home for almost three months and enjoying every minute of it, as I am not used this situation.


Having said that, don’t you miss football?
We should not compare the two, and put them against each other because in all honesty they go hand in hand, it is just different circumstances for different people. My family is based in Bloemfontein and I work in Johannesburg, and because of the distance I am unable to see them daily but I try to be with them as often as I can, work permitting.

Coming back to your question, I am a football person through and through. I have lived the game all my life.

As a black child growing up, you know that the minute you start walking you have a ball to play with – it may have been the only toy you had, and I grew up in the game.

During my football playing days, we never experienced anything like this – where the game was stopped and the game could not be played for any reason. The only time I didn’t play football was when I was injured but the game continued.

In short, yes, I do miss the game and it has been difficult to live without the game for so long.


And as a technical person it is pleasing to hear that football is close to being played again.
But we need to be honest with ourselves because the fact is even medical people cannot tell when the pandemic will go away or if a vaccine will be found, so it becomes very difficult to project anything.

When it is safe to play, the health and safety protocols are in place, and then by all means let the games begin.

We have to take it one day at a time and not be careless in our eagerness to return to the game, as it may prove disastrous in a long run.

We all want our football back and that is a fact – it has been too long. As I have been saying, let us do the right things and keep hope alive.