South African international Siboniso Gaxa may only have arrived in Belgium three weeks ago, but he is already adapting to the challenges of European football. As self-assured as ever, the player is equally upbeat about the future of his national team, as he told in an exclusive interview after training with his new side.

The atmosphere at Lierse SK’s training ground is warm and welcoming, much like the rays of the autumn sun that are beating down upon it. The laughter that echoes throughout the air is in stark contrast to the Lier-based side’s awful start to the season, which has seen them pick up just a solitary point from their opening seven matches. Lierse are a club in crisis, to such an extent that Eric van Meir, the mastermind behind the team’s 1997 Belgian Championship triumph, has been brought back in as a replacement for Aime Anthuenis, with whom they parted company following last weekend’s 2-0 loss to Westerlo. However, this apparent instability does not appear to have unduly effected Gaxa, who immediately stresses that he is “very happy” in his new surroundings.

Relaxing on a wooden bench just outside the changing rooms, the Durban-born defender, signed just before the end of the recent transfer window, comes across as shy but very amiable. “I had the chance to come to Europe after the Confederations Cup – I had offers from Italy and Greece – but my club wasn’t keen on releasing me,” he explained, when asked about his move to Belgium. “Appearing at the World Cup further increased my profile. I feel lucky to have come here, because playing in Europe has always been a dream of mine.”

'Anything is possible'
“The game is pretty fast here in Belgium, and you don’t get a lot of time on the ball. It’s also more demanding on your body, even in training,” he remarked with a smile. “You have to be up for the physical challenge. It’s another thing that you need to adapt to, along with learning a new language,” added the product of the FC Copenhagen School of Excellence, a football academy based in South Africa. “I’d love to be able to show young South Africans that anything is possible in life, that by remaining positive and giving your all, you can achieve your dreams. For me and my family, football has quite simply enabled us to improve our lives. I certainly wasn’t the best player in my peer group when I started out, but I got there in the end, while others fell by the wayside. I just had a stronger will.”

As part of a cosmopolitan Lierse squad, Gaxa is well aware of the importance of integrating quickly, especially as regards day-to-day issues. He is about to start a course of French lessons, and will then turn his mind to bringing his fiancée and young daughter over to Belgium. He misses his family, but the former Mamelodi Sundowns player knows that the current separation will be worth it in the end. “Playing in Europe helps you to improve – mentally, tactically and physically. There are also personal benefits, because you widen your horizons by experiencing a different culture. It’s a shame that more South Africans don’t give it a try. After all, the more players we have at European clubs, the better our national side will become.”

Since the disappointment of not advancing past the group stage at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, South Africa have “accomplished some brilliant things”, says Gaxa, in reference to their 1-0 friendly victory over Ghana and their 2-0 win against Niger in a 2012 CAF African Cup of Nations qualifying match. “By bringing the country together for an entire month, we created a whole new level of enthusiasm in the national side. Moreover, the additional support has really helped the confidence and morale of the players. We’re on the right track to relive the glory days of 1996, when we won the African Cup of Nations. We’re less insecure than we used to be; we believe in ourselves more.”

The Parreira effect
Gaxa is quick to pay tribute to the legacy left by former national coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. “He taught us how to keep hold of the ball, to respect the game and to play with smiles on our faces.” He also believes that the key to Bafana Bafana’s upsurge in form is stability. “The new man in charge, Pitso Mosimane, was already the team’s assistant coach, so he’s not really changed an awful lot, apart from introducing a few more young players into the team. Carlos Parreira had a big effect on him too. The foundations are there to be built on, and we all really enjoy playing together for the national team.”

The African right-back does not let his enthusiasm cloud the major issue facing the team: specifically, the poor-quality finishing that has been its Achilles’ heel for quite some time now. “We miss too many chances, it’s true,” he admitted. “At the World Cup it was there for everyone to see. At the highest level of the game, you need to take your chances when you get them. Against Mexico, we should really have scored three in the second half, and in the France game we had six or seven incredible opportunities but only put two of them away. That was our undoing in the end. Even in our recent wins, we should have put the game out of the reach of both Ghana and Niger, but weren’t able to.”

That said, Gaxa is convinced that through hard work they can overcome such problems and concluded our interview with a warning for future opponents: “We’re going to surprise quite a few teams in the months to come, I can assure you of that.”