Where's Benni McCarthy?
South Africa took a huge gamble by leaving the Blackburn star on the sidelines.
Joel Santana is either a man of principle or incredibly foolish.
The Brazilian made the toughest decision of his 11-month reign as manager of South Africa's national team when he recently decided not to call up Benni McCarthy for duty in the FIFA Confederations Cup.
A star striker with Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League, McCarthy is a player of considerable skill who has appeared 75 games for South Africa and is the country's all-time leading scorer with 31 goals in international competition.
McCarthy, 31, is generally considered South Africa's most influential player and he has represented the Bafana Bafana squad with distinction at two World Cups, and finished joint top scorer at the 1998 African Cup of Nations.
But he's also earned widespread criticism for what many describe as his petulant behaviour and for his periods of self-imposed exile from the national team.
The latest episode occurred when he refused to play in a pair of exhibition games for South Africa on March 28 and 31. McCarthy cited a hamstring injury for missing the matches, but he played the full 90 minutes and scored a goal in Blackburn's 2-1 victory over Tottenham on April 4, raising serious doubts about the seriousness of the injury.
It didn't go unnoticed by McCarthy, who omitted the Blackburn star from his national team roster for the Confederations Cup, which South Africa will host from June 14-28.
There is great value in maintaining strict team discipline, but one wonders whether Santana made the right move in banishing McCarthy, especially when you consider South Africa, far from being a soccer superpower, will need all the help it can get to avoid being eliminated from the tournament in the first round and embarrassed before the hometown fans.
What's more, the Blackburn star is South Africa's only legitimate scoring threat, which leads journalist and renowned African soccer expert Mark Gleeson to believe Santana has made a tactical blunder.
"Santana has two match winners in his side," Gleeson told CBCSports.ca over the phone from Cape Town. "He has a player named Teko Modise - a midfielder and a fabulous footballer — and Benni McCarthy who, despite his podgy frame, still has the magic to win games.
"So he's taken, in my mind, 50 per cent of his match-winning capacity out of the equation. He's screwed himself a bit."
While others have been quick to applaud Santana for taking such a hard line stance with McCarthy, Gleeson believes the Brazilian wasn't motivated by principle so much as he was by public perception.
"My impression is that Santana makes decisions that are based on job preservation," Gleeson explained. "Benni is public enemy No. 1 because he picks and chooses when he wants to play for the national team and that irritates people here, so they're delighted and they think Santana is brave enough to dispatch Benni to where he belongs on the sidelines.
"To me, it's a bit stupid because South Africa don't have any other quality strikers. They think any guy can put the ball in the net so it's a disastrous move, but politically it's quite smart because Santana is looking after himself and not the team."
Though McCarthy will be watching the Confederations Cup as a spectator, Gleeson doesn't believe his time with the national team is over, and wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see the Blackburn star wearing the team's national colours next summer when it stages the FIFA World Cup.
"If South Africa does well at this Confederations Cup — and by well I mean they win their first two games [against Iraq and New Zealand] and get to the semifinals — … everyone here will be over the moon," Gleeson said.
"If that happens, I think McCarthy will be in trouble. But if they don't play well and they fail to make it out of the group stage, I think they'll try to get him back as quickly as they can, maybe with a different coach in charge."