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End to Serero saga is welcome news - for player and country

Thulani Serero up against Senegal star Sadio Mane Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

The return of Thulani Serero to the Bafana Bafana squad for the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria came as a welcome surprise, but one that has finally seen sanity prevail in what was a unseemly incident that painted both the player and the association in a poor light.

Serero had been banned by the South African Football Association (SAFA) after he reportedly refused a call-up for the World Cup qualifiers against Senegal last November unless he was guaranteed playing time.

It came after he had been benched for the matches prior to that as Baxter chose other options, with Serero's frustration boiling over.

Rather than engage with the player, still one of South Africa's finest exports of recent years, SAFA lashed out with a ban, and he has not been seen in the national team since.

No country should have their best players sidelined in such a way. Serero is a complex personality and always has been, even in his days at Ajax Cape Town.

But part of football is knowing how to manage personalities, especially 'difficult' ones, and while Serero's actions should be condemned, this is also a failure on the part of SAFA to try and find a solution.

Had South Africa not been suffering an injury crises, especially in the midfield where Serero is key for Dutch side Vitesse, it is doubtful the issue would have ever been resolved.

But the loss of Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo, Bongani Zungu, Sibusiso Vilakazi and Keagan Dolly has left Baxter desperately thin on experience, and the return of Serero is timely.

Indeed, it was the player who reached out for a reprieve, according to Baxter.

"Thulani indicated strongly to people at the "ssociation that he wanted to make himself available for selection," Baxter told reporters on Monday. "I obviously checked on his form and he has been playing quite well at a good level."

But Baxter said that no guarantees have been made about game-time, and it will be solely down to his discretion if Serero plays and in what role.

"I obviously spoke to him and we are both on the same page. I needed to know from him if his availability is unconditional because if you remember the problem was not that he did not want to play for the national team, but he did not want to sit on the bench.

"I needed to be convinced of his unconditional availability and he assured me that it was. I was delighted to hear that because he is one of the players who are playing at a very good level."

Baxter maintains that throughout Serero's absence, he always felt that he could be an important part of the team.

"He is and he has been an important player for us; I don't think he is the sort of player who makes a massive impact with his noise in the dressing room because he is a quite boy.

"But he has qualities that we will need in our attacking game because of his mobility‚ the vision to see a pass and one-on-one situation."

Baxter added that while he was happy to give Serero another chance, the team culture and environment was important and could not be disrupted by individuals.

"I am working from the assumption that everybody can make a poor decision and I thought his decision was poor when he said he wouldn't continue to come to the national team," he said.

"But I do think that everybody had a right to second chances in life, and this is his second chance. It is not a wild west saloon where people come in and come out. We have worked very hard at what sort of environment we want around the national team."

Serero was something of a teen prodigy at Ajax Cape Town and made his national team debut in February 2011 against Kenya, months before he left for Ajax Amsterdam.

He had played every minute for South Africa at the 2009 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, and was also part of the camp in Brazil ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, though he did not make the final cut.

He was a regular under Baxter's predecessor Shakes Mashaba, but has yet to play a single minute under the current coach.

It is most certain that he will get that chance against Nigeria though, and he could cap his comeback in spectacular style if he can lead Bafana to victory.