With the 2013 AFCON hosted by South Africa around the corner, comparing African and Europe comes naturally given the last warm-up match between Bafana Bafana and Norway in Cape Town. The Europeans won 1-0 and to many, by luck. The truth is that Africans are miles behind.
Many acclaimed African footballers are endowed with crisp natural abilities that make up for technical and tactical essentials of football that are well-practised in European academies from very tender ages. As seen over the years in South African football since the days of the 'shoe-shine' pianos, these are short-cuts to the real deal. The short-cuts deceive the world and indeed the players themselves.
At international level, young players go through a mill. They are grilled and pass through the furnace and then moulded in pattern shops of academies which give them an edge. It is not as complicated as I am making it but vital enough.
Pass for pass, ball reception for ball reception, the difference between the two types of players can be classic. This is due to the fact that a match can be won by that difference on just that one occasion.
Watching Norway beat South Africa 1-0 in Cape Town, it was amazing how much the hosts failed to make much of their possession and few Bafana players executed these basic skills meaningfully. With 64% possession and a defeat to show for their toil was based on the basic analysis of one or two events in 95 minutes.
To understand what I am talking about, one has to follow closely this explanation. The timing of the pass or the first touch of the ball reception, can be 0.01 of a second early or late, the pass that is a foot long or short, body position that is a degree to the right or left is all that is needed to influence the result. This depends on the level of technical ability of course, time spent practising the technique and skill and good decision making skills.
As one point of the new English football philosophy, decision making is the finer bit that should be encouraged earlier on in players' careers and many Africans lack that big time. Many acclaimed players like Simphiwe Tshabalala, Reneiloe Letsholonyane, Tokello Rantjie and Siyabonga Sangweni can do way better.
They survive and flow through by luck and sometimes by superior natural abilities. The problem with fluke is that their counterparts learn to deal with these when still young. Many 'big' African stars shun their national teams due to lack of details from coaches because the material fed to them is inferior but that is a story for another day.
Most of the attacking behaviour and patterns were not clear cut and the intentions were too disguised even for the South African team's good. The details of implementing the plan were ignored. In attack, the passing and ball control looked like it was spot-on, hence the higher possession rate.
That possession was said to be negative by the Norwegian coach. For me, that was not the deal. The distances and angles of the passes, the weight of the pass and as mentioned earlier, the timing, did not tally and thread through to produce a quality sequence of events to be productive enough. All these facets need to be precise in any single occurrence at least once to win a match.
Defensively, the same is true. The speed of approach to closing the man on the ball, the angles and distances of support to the first defender were appalling. These distances need to be right and especially in the 18-yard box, there can not be a mistake as there is no second chance.
Here, the difference between a foot and a foot and a half is the difference between a 0-0 and a 0-1. Getting first to the ball needs good anticipation. Interceptions can not always be possible in tight spaces where the ball is moved quite quickly and early.
Pressurising the man on the ball and fighting for the second ball to win it become mandatory. In the way the Norwegians scored their goal, a chain of events happened to perfection to their thrill.
There was no one to close down the crosser of the ball. The next attacker had ample time to play the ball square and then the ball was returned centrally. All these attackers received token challenges which would have been bad enough for amateur football.
The final two players touched the ball with minimum spaces and that is all they needed. The South African defence's priority became that of avoiding committing a foul, which they did at the expense of a goal. They did not have to be in that situation to start with.
At the same time, as you will remember, Norway knew they will not have such a chain of events working in their favour anytime soon but they kept looking for the opportunity, in what is daily termed making one's luck.
Back to the point I tried to make, one extra foot, a fraction of a second earlier as well as a degree or two angle could have prevented a Norwegian goal. The same is true in getting the goal the other end although not as easy because that is how Europeans work on the detail. They work in preventing to cancel such small advantages and do it well.
For Africans to come out tops, more had to be aligned, including fortune and referee's decisions. For the things they could have done for themselves, they failed dismally unless you were a fan enjoying football. Since they face fellow Africans in the same predicament, Bafana look to be on par with many nations but they have a few days to put their house in order.