The long version: From the days of the flamboyant players like Doctor Khumalo, Augustine Makhalakhalane, David Nyathi, Sizwe Motaung and Ace Khuse just to name a few, when the momentum of the infertile ‘shoe-shine’ piano that was created in the apartheid era as just pure entertainment for the black oppressed propelled the South African football, no further attempt was made to right the wrong of the ill-development of the sport of the marginalised. That excitement took over the game completely as the false sense of security of class was nursed by the victories in the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996 and the subsequent qualifications to the FIFA World Cups and other AFCONs. All people failed to see that it was nothing but pride, black magic and the bitter-sweet reaction of the sudden taste of political freedom. The early successes were purely a case of a poor man suddenly getting a million bucks without any plan or budget.
I must say that at one point during the apartheid era, there were junior leagues from the under-8 age group going up. This was for the few elite groups like Greeks, Portuguese and other privileged white groups who had funds to entertain themselves and the townships and remote areas did not enjoy the privilege. The blacks sharing the table with these societies partook in these as an extension of gratitude and courteousness as it is rude to have a meal while someone is watching.
The true rainbow colours of the South African football were exposed when push came to shove as the weaknesses of the game were laid bare gradually until the hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. For starters, there is not much football development going at any level since the many coaches from Carlos Queirros to Carlos Alberto Perreira made proposal after proposal for the youth and reserve leagues to run. The issue is that there is too much money in the South African game, and too much of everything is bad. Too much interest is placed on first team football and no one entertains any distractions of developing youth football. It is time consuming and physically and mentally taxing.
Big clubs have what they call ‘development sides’ but not much attention is given to the player development detail and the execution of the plans in relation to the clubs’ first team football. The lack of philosophies for each club is easily visible as they cut and chop their technical teams at the drop of a hat. There is no football culture. As a result, no loyalty to the club is taken seriously unless one is talking of Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates or Bloemfontein Celtics. For a country thought to be football crazy, it is a great shame that teams like Mpumalanga Black Aces among many, play home matches in front of just hundreds of fans unless they play Chiefs or Pirates. That is ridiculous. Where are the home-town heroes? I must say I actually like the 'shoe-shine' piano and think it could be a brand of football that would be South African trademark if done properly.
Each town should have its junior league with the residential areas contributing the young players and their community rallying behind the boys who they see growing up in the game. These players grow up to be home town heroes and all the people will see them grow and mature to be great national team players. The school football league should be very visible and serious provincially and nationally. One does not expect that to be in the same league as the college sports in the United States of America but that is the idea. The rugby fraternity do well in this aspect and have the Varsity Cup which football is trying to emulate. In the States, because of the local lads, the college sports are far more popular than the professional leagues because of the catchment areas of the athletes.
Across the northern border in Zimbabwe, where the ABSA Premier League always poached their best players since the days of George Nechironga, Gilbert Mushangazhike, the Mugeyi and Mbizo brothers, Ian Gorowa, Tauya Murehwa, Cleopas Dlodlo, Robson Mtshitshwa, Innocent Chikoya, Alois Bunjira, Thulani Ncube, Stewart Murisa, Adam Ndlovu, Nelson Bandura, Engelbergt Dhina and Benjamin Mwaruwaru, to the times of Tinashe Nengomashe, Cheche Billiart and Knowledge Musona to name a few, these players were identified at schools tournaments called NASH (a national association of schools) as well as others like the Peter Ndlovu Youth Tournament to name two. The organisation of these games is an on-going process and is a machine that produced all the big names including Peter Ndlovu, Adam Ndlovu and Benjamin Nkonjera among many. At one point, these school tournament winners went overseas further exposing them to the global game. The school league matches attract a lot of attention and interest all the time.
In all the league and Cup matches, there are always curtain raisers where youth teams and reserve sides play each other before main matches. In earlier years, as early as the gates opened around 09:00 hours on matches days, people would be thronging the stadium gates to enter and watch the young under 13 players and then the under 15, 17, 19 and the reserve sides. From that early age, budding stars would be noticed by coaches and fans and many people would even skip the main matches after watching the upcoming players. On other weekends, the fans would track their young heroes to smaller football grounds to enjoy these matches as they were free and entertaining, and risk being late for the big matches. The obvious advantages are that the coaches and people know their heroes and want to follow them. The young players grow knowing the pressure of big match fever and subsequently, they easily cope well under pressure and deal better with fame.
In South Africa, the big matches are never preceded by juniors or reserve sides. There are no curtain raisers, save for once in a blue moon Masters' games that are puled up as publicity stunts. Zimbabwe did all this youth development with very limited resources and became a South Africa league feeder base for many years. This kind of youth development could easily be implemented, instead of the fancy and complex projects that are one day wonders. A sustained player manufacturing factory demands the inception of the programs at village level and high density locations as well as schools.
It may be difficult to think and work along those lines. An easy and fast way to bypass a process that may be tedious for the football administrators, is to outsource this service to the experienced neighbours. South Africa needs to invest in the football projects in Zimbabwe. After all, the coaching in that country is top notch as many of them plied their trade here including Roy Barretto who won the championship with the Bucs, Shepherd Murape and Sunday Chidzambwa, though I must admit the facilities in some areas will need a lot of attention. That can be arranged though as part of the package can be the upgrade of facilities that the Zimbabweans can use after the partnerships are over. It is actually a long term strategy but the bosses must start to engage and think with their kidneys.
The dire need to correct the natural state of affairs in the short term calls for drastic recruitment of the entire Nigerian under 20 team that won the FIFA Under -20 World Cup in the UAE in 2013 and take them to the Home Affairs office to give them citizenship before they turn out for the Super Eagles. I am not aware of their source of prowess, although it should not be different from what the Ghanaians do. In Ghana, the process of development is well documented and well maintained. This dates back to the days Carlos Alberto Perreira when he started his career after he spent time as a fitness trainer.
This will not be the first time that players and athletes are given citizenship for their protagonist talents. Many Kenyans and Ethiopians compete for adopted countries like The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other Scandinavian countries. Mario Balottelli is of Ghanaian origin. We all remember France's Zinedine Zidane who has Algerian links. The now feared Belgian team comprises of Moruane Fellaine of Morocco, Mousa Dembele (Mali), Romeo Lukaku and Vincent Kompany (Congo) to name a few just for an idea. In Poland, a few years back, a team won promotion to the first Division and the directors flew to Brazil and brought 16 players. Bafana need 20 players and there will be nothing amiss about romping in the junior World Cup champions.
As we all know, this record 5-0 defeat to Brazil was never an event. It has long been coming and small flukes here and there, including one recent against Spain must never let people think all is well, or as they say, rest on their laurels, neither should Gordon Igesund be blamed as has been the case with all the coaches we hired and fired for the country’s incompetence in developing quality players.