Cosafa Cup gave me boost – Maela
The Cosafa Cup is a perfect platform for young players trying to advance their careers, and Orlando Pirates left-back Innocent Maela knows that very well.
Last year, Maela was a barely known Pirates youth product who had spent three years on loan at Thanda Royal Zulu in the First Division, and captained them on being promoted the previous season, when he was called up by Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter for the 2017 Cosafa Cup.
That tournament was a disappointment for a combination stitched together under the usual pressure of clubs not releasing players, Bafana losing their first game against Tanzania, then winning the Plate section by beating Botswana and Namibia.
Unlike that tournament, where Baxter was forced to take a number of players who would not threaten for Bafana positions otherwise, making it a pointless exercise, this year the coach has managed to secure young players with future national potential.
Maela, too, is back – now a 25-year-old star of Pirates’ resurgent season in 2017-18.
He believes the Cosafa Cup experience helped ease him into Pirates, and gave him the confidence to push for a first-team place.
“It helped a lot. It’s different playing in the PSL and in international football,” Maela said yesterday as Bafana prepared in Polokwane for their Cosafa quarterfinal opener on Sunday against the winners of Group A.
“International football is more physical. It gives you lessons that you can take back with you. “The last Cosafa Cup exposed me to things that I wanted to do and it increased the desire. For up-and-coming players, the tournament is very useful.
“If you have a good tournament you learn, you grow, and you go back to your club and become a different player.”
With Baxter having had a week to work with his exciting young squad, expectations of results – and even winning the tournament – have been raised.
Given that holders Zimbabwe have brought their strongest combination to the tournament, including Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona, that seems an attainable, though far from easy, ask.
“For me personally I really do think that we have a good team. When you look at the players here, they’re players excelling at their clubs,” Maela said.
“But also you must understand that this tournament helps develop and grow players so that they can be ready for maybe more important tournaments.
“So I’m not sure. But for me personally I think we really do have a good chance.”
Among players excelling at their clubs, Bafana’s Cosafa captain Siyanda Xulu was crowned Defender of the Season at the Premier Soccer League awards on Tuesday night.
His Maritzburg United teammates Siphesihle Ndlovu (Young Player and Midfielder of the Season) and Lebohang Maboe (Nedbank Cup Player of the Tournament) also won.
Maela was among a quartet of nominated Bafana players to leave camp and travel to Sandton for the awards, but lost out to Xulu for Defender of the Season.