WATCHING Bafana Bafana dismantle Congo with authority at the weekend, a friend asked a question which certainly will have preoccupied most South African football followers:

How did Shakes Mashaba get it so right in such a short space of time when his predecessors battled at the helm of the national side for years?

It is a pertinent question because, as they take on Congo again tonight in Polokwane, Bafana do so with the knowledge that victory will qualify them for next year’s Africa Cup of Nations finals in Morocco – with 10 points guaranteeing a place in the top two in Group A.

A national team which last qualified for a major tournament in 2008 could, tonight, qualify with not one, but two matches to spare.

We should be thankful to Mashaba that Bafana find themselves in this comfortable position. B, but why couldn’t a succession of national coaches, from Stuart Baxter to Carlos Alberto Parreira to Pitso Mosimane and Gordon Igesund, get the team to play with the fluidity and assurance we are seeing now?

One of the answers has to lie in Mashaba’s unpredictability. His team selection is a complete departure from what we’ve seen before, and even where we overwhelmingly makes a prediction on who he will select, he always manages to surprise us.

For me, the main difference has been that Mashaba has made it difficult for us to know what he’s going to do, and I imagine it must be worse for the players, who never know whether they’ll be selected, let alone given a starting berth.

Take, for instance, his selection of Ajax Cape Town’s Rivaldo Coetzee for last weekend’s away leg against the Congolese in Pointe Noire.

The withdrawal from the squad of Anele Ngcongca provided ample speculation that Mashaba would fill the defender’s void with Tefu Mashamaite. This only seemed logical as the experienced Mashamaite already had an outstanding defensive partnership with Erick Mathoho at Kaizer Chiefs, and the duo would easily slot in as centre-halves at national level.

Not according to Mashaba, who instead shocked the nation – and in the process invited scorn – by selecting Coetzee for such a crucial away game. The teenager didn’t disappoint, putting in a solid performance which earned him rave reviews, although his performance was not entirely flawless.

In addition, previously, very few of his predecessors would have dared to field an attacking team where the stakes were so high. The attitude had always been to avoid defeat, rather than chase victory.

For me, the main difference has been that Mashaba has made it difficult for us to know what he’s going to do, and I imagine it must be worse for the players, who never know whether they’ll be selected, let alone given a starting berth.

It’s quite a refreshing break from the monotony of yesteryear, when some players were so comfortable in the national team that they saw themselves as indispensable. It’s a different story under Mashaba, however, who has brought about a competitive edge in the side and, should Bafana win tonight, they can afford to celebrate qualification for the Afcon finals.

Even if it turns out we were wrong to celebrate due to some misreading of the rules – think the Mbombela Rule 14.1 debacle of 2011 – our Bafana still have two more matches to come. How comforting is that!

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