x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

African Cup of Nations: Igesund inspiring confidence in South Africa after finally getting chance

Gordon Igesund is already having an impact after finally getting the chance to turn his impressive domestic managerial record into an international one, writes Ian Hawkey.

South Africa coach Gordon Igesund talks with his players during training.
South Africa coach Gordon Igesund talks with his players during training.

Jobs for national head coaches in Africa last for a notoriously short time. Club managers there barely last longer, but in this volatile business, if you can make enough of a name for yourself as a specialist, the next offer comes around soon enough.

Take Claude Le Roy. The 64-year-old Frenchman's seventh Nations Cup came to an end on Monday, his second spell with DR Congo, one of four different countries he has coached at the tournament, yielding only a group phase. Stephen Keshi, 51, is already at his third Nations Cup as a coach. He took Togo to one, Mali to another and seeks to guide his native Nigeria to a semi-final tomorrow.

South Africa's Gordon Igesund has been around the block, too, but his presence on the touchline in his native Durban this evening, in a quarter-final against Mali, feels to many of his compatriots like a long overdue moment.

His long career has been spent almost entirely with clubs. Until last weekend, South Africa had not gone as far as the knockout stage at an Afcon since 2004. But had the country's Football Association, Safa, appointed the most successful coach in their own league at any time in the last decade, the argument goes, that recent record might not look so bland.

Igesund finally became the 18th different man in 20 years to manage Bafana Bafana last June. He called it "the biggest challenge of his life," and there have been a few. As a player, swift and mobile, he had been successful enough in South Africa in the late 1970s to catch the eye of European scouts, and had some good seasons in Austria.

At home, he also learnt much about the sport's place in his then very troubled and racially divided country. As a white South African he enjoyed privileges; as a footballer, he was in a profession that found itself symbolising post-apartheid possibilities even when apartheid was still disfiguring most of the social landscape.

He played some combustible fixtures at a time when clubs from what had previously been separate leagues - one for whites, one for blacks - met. "There were big fights all over the place," he remembers. "But you look back on it and realise it was part of us growing as a country."

By the time Nelson Mandela's democratic South Africa won their first only Africa Cup of Nations, in 1996, with a team drawn from all communities, Igesund was making his name in a united league growing in prosperity. In the 1990s and Noughties, he won domestic titles with not one but two unfashionable, provincial clubs, Manning Rangers and Santos.

He then repeated the trick with the Soweto heavyweights, Orlando Pirates, and won a unique fourth South African Premier League with Mamelodi Sundowns, a club with a generous patron, but still in need of careful guidance.

Through all this, and various successful rescue missions and resurrections at other clubs, he was overlooked again and again for the national team. Once or twice, it may have been a black candidate was deemed preferable as figurehead for South Africa's most popular sport; often, a foreign coach was considered better qualified.

Seven months ago, with Bafana Bafana at a low ebb, and a major event to stage in front of them Igesund got the call. Their progress at this Nations Cup as hosts has been nervy at times, the flaws of a side short on superstars alarmingly obvious. But the compatriots he lines up today believe in Igesund's capacity to raise their game, seem to respect his list of achievements and trust his guidance.

"He had changed many players' lives," says the South Africa midfielder Lerato Chabangu.

"He believes in his player's ability and is a great motivator. You just have to look at what he has done with all the teams he has coached. With him, we can really go on and win this tournament."

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