By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - South Africa's president Jacob Zuma has rallied to the defence of the national football team after the country's sports minister called them "useless" and a "bunch of losers".
Bafana Bafana were booted out in the first round of the 2014 African Nations Championship (CHAN) after they lost 3-1 to Nigeria in Cape Town, a fourth tournament failure in 12 months for beleaguered coach Gordon Igesund.
That led to a furious outburst from sports minister Fikile Mbalula at a press conference on Monday, calling on the country to "forget this generation of players" and build a new team.
However, Zuma, who has clashed with Mbalula in the past after the latter openly backed deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe in the African National Congress's leadership race in 2012, disagreed with his minister.
"We're well aware that some people are criticising the way the national team played against Nigeria. Some want the team disbanded. It has improved greatly and needs our support," Zuma said on local radio station SAFM later that day.
"The current coach knows what he's doing. He's great at his job. The fact that the team lost, that doesn't mean anything as other teams lost as well."
The CHAN tournament is a competition for quasi-national teams, made up of home-based players only, which South Africa is hosting.
The issue of the performance of the national team in what is a low-level Confederation of African Football (CAF) competition has taken a political slant in an election year in South Africa.
Mbalula's outburst drew strong criticism for its ferocity.
"Last night we saw a bunch of losers - unbearable useless individuals," he said.
"We must never wake up to this. We indeed have a crisis of monumental proportions, this tournament has proved. That mediocrity we saw yesterday is disgraceful.
"In Africa we have won nothing - we are the laughing stock. This generation of players we must forget. It is back to the drawing board. SAFA must draw up a detailed plan. They must wake up and smell the coffee."
Politics aside, it places the future of Igesund in serious doubt.
He could only guide the hosts to the quarter-finals of the 2013 African Nations Cup, missed out on qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, lost in the semi-finals of the regional COSAFA Cup and now suffered a first round exit in the CHAN competition.
It has led to South African Football Association (SAFA) president Danny Jordaan promising an overhaul of the country's football system.
"I am fully aware that the national team needs urgent attention and we are dealing with the situation," Jordaan said.
"We have a meeting already scheduled in early February where the team name, technical staff and technical sponsorship will be addressed."