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 By Nick Said

Stuart Baxter's 'second coming' a calculated risk by SAFA

Stuart Baxter
Stuart Baxter

They say you should never go back. On the face of it, Stuart Baxter's return to the position of national team coach of South Africa looks a professional risk in a country that has had 19 different tacticians at the helm in the past 25 years.

But Baxter knows exactly what he is walking into. He knows the foibles, eccentricities and politics within the halls of the South African Football Association.

He also knows that the country has an exciting mix of youth and experience in their national set-up, and the chances of reaching the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia - which would be the highlight of a distinguished coaching career - are tantalisingly good.

Baxter was axed during his first spell in charge of the side after failing to reach the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Those 18 months were a roller-coaster ride of good results and dismal defeats, but overall did little to endear him to South African fans.

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It is fair to say that his reputation, within the country at least, was tarnished.

Just 10 wins in 23 games, with 35 goals scored and 35 conceded, tells its own story. Not enough victories and too loose in defence.

But you should not judge Baxter's future prospects on that past record. He should be judged rather on what he has done since, and in that regard he is certainly qualified for the job.

When Baxter took the job first time round he had previously coached in Sweden, Portugal, Japan and England. The challenge of travelling away to the likes of Accra, Kinshasa and Ouagadougou would have been a new, and possibility overwhelming, experience.

Dealing with the psyche of South African players and trying to quickly learn their strengths and weaknesses as the World Cup qualification campaign started just months after his arrival was to some extent unfair, but the reality of his situation.

Since he departed in November 2005, Baxter has gone on to coach further in Japan and Sweden with top clubs in those leagues, and also had a successful spell in charge of Finland. Then, crucially, he returned to South Africa for a trophy-laden three years at Kaizer Chiefs that included two league titles and four pieces of silverware in all.

Even his 15-month stay at SuperSport United has yielded another trophy and a joint record unbeaten run in the country's Premier Soccer League.

He now understands how to get the best out of South African players -- what their limitations are and what makes them tick. There will be no mystery either about conditions when playing in other parts of Africa.

He is much more informed about his job than the first time around and takes over a more dynamic squad, with arguably greater options at his disposal.

Baxter has 12 years more experience at club and international level and, crucially, almost half of those years have been spent in South African and African football.There will be no surprises and no need for an adjustment period. He can hit the ground running.

Herve Renard
Herve Renard

And that, likely, was the attraction for SAFA, who were widely reported to have spoken to the likes of Herve Renard and Hugo Broos, though those two deny it.

In Baxter, South Africa get a 'steady Eddy'; a calm and clear thinker who will immediately have the respect of the national team players for his tactical acumen and for what he has achieved in the local game.

It is a solid appointment; perhaps not one quite to get the pulses racing, but one that has every chance of success.

And so Baxter goes back into the Lion's Den of SAFA House, some 12 years older and a lot wiser than when he was last there. It's an open secret in football circles that he felt short-changed last time round in that it appeared nobody was willing to listen to his vision for the country's football.

He shouldn't expect any sympathetic ears this time round either, but he will know that. The job is much simpler. Qualify for the African Nations Cup and the World Cup.

And South Africa's chances are now greater with Baxter at the helm.

Nick Said is a Southern African sports writer for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @NickSaid.


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