With just over 200 days left before the start of Africa’s first World Cup, South Africa is in need of a miracle worker if the footballing fortunes of the host nation are to be revived.
The team has been left in disarray after a series of losses that has seen South Africa slump to 85th in the FIFA rankings.
The departure of Brazilian coach Joel Santana was welcomed with headlines Tuesday reading “Adeus Amigo,” and “We need a Messiah.”
Santana will not be missed, the popular newspaper Sowetan said in a front-page editorial. “With him gone, it is indeed an end of an error.”
The South Africa Football Association announced Monday that it and Santana were parting ways amicably, but few doubt he had little choice in the matter.
An indication of who might take over is expected to emerge at the association’s executive meeting to be held Friday.
There have been calls for a local coach to be hired after a succession of foreigners. But there is also much speculation about the return of Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil.
The new man will be the team’s 15th coach in as many years.
Santana, who earned a reported $200,000 a month, was appointed in April last year after Parreira resigned to be with his ill wife.
The choice of the 60-year-old Santana to take South Africa to the World Cup raised eyebrows because of his lack of international experience.
During his 17 months in charge of the team, Santana failed to win over fans and commentators and wasn’t helped by his lack of English. He was also criticized for having a rigid approach to the game that left players and assistants unmotivated.
Described as a strict disciplinarian, Santana also alienated the country’s few players at big European clubs – the troubled Nasief Morris Racing Santander in Spain and Benni McCarthy at Blackburn in England.
The dismal performances of the team, nicknamed Bafana Bafana, have been the butt of national jokes for some time now. The glory days of 1996, when the team was African champions, have long faded.
Under Santana, Bafana Bafana didn’t qualify for the African Cup of Nations for the first time in 14 years.
Santana redeemed himself when South Africa narrowly made it to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. But the confidence gained then was not enough to sustain the team in its next few matches.
The last straw seemed to be last week’s 1-0 loss to Iceland – its eighth in nine matches since June.
SAFA’s new management has made it clear that the team must start winning if South Africa is to field one worthy of a host country. This is a point that FIFA repeatedly stresses.
But there are concerns that axing Santana would only cause the team further disruption. Some commentators don’t believe the team’s lackluster performance can be pinned on the coach alone.
Some point fingers at the poor attitude of players; others blame a lack of development in the hugely popular sport.
“We can, every two years, hire and fire national coaches who fail to produce results but ultimately it will not take us anywhere, because the root of the problem we are facing as a country is that our development is not up to scratch as we are failing to produce quality players,” the South African Football Players Union said.
Whatever the problems with South African football are, there is agreement that steps must be urgently taken if the nation is to have any credibility at the World Cup.
“Our soccer bosses now have a last chance to put in charge someone who can lift the team from its gloom,” said the editorial in The Times, a Johannesburg-based newspaper. “We wish them lots of luck.”