By Mark Gleeson
South Africa coach Stuart Baxter handed a surprise recall to midfielder Thulani Serero as he named his squad for this month’s key Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria.
Serero is included despite the Vitesse Arnhem star telling Baxter last year he would not travel for Bafana Bafana matches unless guaranteed a starting berth.
“The sofa in Arnhem is more comfortable than the South African bench. If the national team wants me, then I must play. As the situation is now, I don’t want to go,” Serero told reporters before last November’s World Cup qualifiers against Senegal.
But the 28-year-old, who spent much of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers warming the bench for his country, has had a change of heart and it could not have come at a better time for South Africa’s coach.
Baxter is facing an injury crisis in midfield with regulars Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo and Bongani all sidelined for the match against the Super Eagles at Soccer City on Saturday 17 November.
“Thulani indicated strongly to people at the association that he wanted to make himself available for selection again,” Baxter explained at a news conference in Johannesburg on Monday.
“I obviously checked on his form and he has been playing quite well at a good level. 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 that 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,” said the coach.
“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 quiet 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,” added Baxter.
Serero is a regular at Vitesse in the top flight in the Netherlands and has won 37 caps for South Africa.
Baxter named just two other changes from the squad that played two qualifiers against the Seychelles twice last month in their bid to qualify for next year’s finals in Cameroon.
Also earning recalls are Maritzburg United midfielder Fortune Makaringe and Mamelodi Sundowns winger Themba Zwane return while striker Bradley Grobler is also out injured and Thabo Nodada dropped.
Nigeria currently top Group E of 2019 Nations Cup qualifying by one point with South Africa second.
Victory for South Africa against the Super Eagles will seal their place in the finals in Cameroon next year but any other result puts the side in some peril.
South Africa squad:
Goalkeepers: Darren Keet (Bidvest Wits), Itumeleng Khune (Kaizer Chiefs), Ronwen Williams (SuperSport United),
Defenders: Thulani Hlatshwayo, Sifiso Hlanti (both BidVest Wits), Motjeka Madisha (Mamelodi Sundowns), Innocent Maela (Orlando Pirates), Thamsanqa Mkhize (Cape Town City), Buhle Mkhwanazi (BidVest Wits), Ramahlwe Mphahlele (Kaizer Chiefs), Siyanda Xulu (Maritzburg United)
Midfielders: Hlompho Kekana (Mamelodi Sundowns), Thembinkosi Lorch (Orlando Pirates), Lebohang Maboe, Tiyani Mabunda (Mamelodi Sundowns), Fortune Makaringe (Maritzburg United), Teboho Mokoena (SuperSport United), Vincent Pule (Orlando Pirates), Thulani Serero (Vitesse Arnhem, Netherlands), Themba Zwane (Mamelodi Sundowns)
Strikers: Lebo Mothiba (Racing Strasbourg, France), Dino Ndlovu (Hangzhou Greentown, China), Percy Tau (Royal Union St Gilloise, Belgium). BBC Sport.