I hope this is my last opinion piece on the senior men’s national team.
Once more, as expected, Bafana Bafana have been knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and the South African Football Association (Safa) is predictably looking for a new coach. It is rumoured that Benni McCarthy may take over. If the rumour is true, it will not be a wise decision for either McCarthy or AmaZulu Football Club.
The main activity of Safa since the days of champion coach Clive Barker has been the hiring and firing of coaches, not the winning of tournaments. This will continue to be the case until we do what is right: putting the interests of the youth and football first. There is no coach that will succeed with the current pool of players who hardly score goals in the Premier Soccer League (PSL). This simple fact is hidden in plain sight for all to see.
The perennial trick of hiring and firing of coaches has ‘hypnotised’ the country to the extent that the media and public expectations are always whipped up to keep our eyes and ears onto the next messianic coach who will take us to the next continental tournament and world cup. This hypnotising trick means that we no longer ask the question: but what is the problem with South African football in general, and Bafana Bafana in particular?
The problem is not the coach. We have had some of the best coaches previously: Shakes Mashaba, Pitso Mosimane, Alberto Pereira, Joel Santana, and many others. We still did not win. In fact, when we won the 1996 CAF tournament, we did not have the best coach, but the best players and team. Those players were developed through a somewhat strong school sport culture then. And they came through the ranks. The coach became respected because of the work of the players and not the other way around.
For example, Germany began rebuilding for their 2014 World Cup victory after their embarrassing quarter final exit in 1998. It took Germany 16 years to achieve the 2014 victory. One of the key role players behind the new German model of youth development was none other than Dietrich Weise, a highly committed and relentless youth development practitioner in the world of football. Players like Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller benefitted a lot from the new youth development focus of the German football association. German’s success shows that in order to compete regionally and globally, you need patience, investment and vision. In 2021, Germany sits at position 12 in Fifa rankings.
In South Africa, Safa has about 52 regions, numerous local associations and several junior national teams. Lately, it has become mandatory for the PSL teams to have a reserve or junior team that plays in the Diski Challenge League – hopefully as part of their licensing conditions.
The national association has also articulated Vision 2022 as a fundamental rebuilding of the structures of Safa at all levels to create the conditions that will bring about the sustained international success of our national teams. The vision seeks to achieve the goal of always being in the top three of the African rankings, and in the top 20 of the world rankings. It is a bold vision launched after yet another regular dismal showing of Bafana Bafana back in 2010. Today the team is number 75 in the Fifa world rankings and sits at 15 in Africa. Clearly Vision 2022 will not be realised.
South Africa is comparable to Brazil in many ways. The two countries have similar attributes when it comes to levels of economic development, love of the game, style of play and investment in football infrastructure – although Brazil has a slight advantage. But when it comes to performance, Brazil is miles ahead of South Africa. The reason is simple: Brazil invests in its development programmes and that is why it remains the highest exporter of football talent globally in the history of football.
We have abundant talent in the dusty streets of South Africa, but unless we have a system that is more structured, open, inclusive and transparent – like the German experiment which saw likes of Kroos and Muller emerge – we will remain uncompetitive and mediocre. The likes of Muller come from the peripheral neglected regions of Germany and Kroos made his Bayern debut at the age of 17. That’s what a solid youth development programme does – it discovers talent.
When you look at the success and competitiveness of the Springboks, a similar pattern and philosophy of development can be discerned. The school and university rugby system is the hotbed of the rugby union’s success, which has solicited global envy.
The national team is the ultimate elite professional level. By the time our youngsters reach 17 and 18 years of age, they should be ripe to compete in our elite level. Neymar Jr debuted for Brazil at the age of 18, while Pele did so at 17. The coach at that level does not teach basic skills like trapping and holding or even personal discipline. Rather, the coach focuses on the philosophy, tactics and studying the opposition. It is the same approach that ought to be applicable to our Olympics work.
The idea that a new coach will improve the fortunes of Bafana Bafana is quite fallacious and laughable, to say the least. There is no coach that will improve the fortunes of players who cannot play and struggle with basics. There is no chef anywhere in the world that can compete with his or her peers with poor-quality ingredients.
Talent identification is a skill and a deliberate process that requires investment. In South Africa, we have a proud history of scouting for footballers. Through scouting, the late great Ewert ‘The Lip’ Nene discovered the legendary Nelson ‘Teenage’ Dladla who played for PUBS of Springs in the 1970s. The late Phil Masinga and Lucas Radebe came through the school system.
Today, Percy Tau is arguably the only deserving player to wear the national jersey. It is quite embarrassing that South Africa moved from the golden moment of the 96 cohort to only have Percy Tau as the new standard bearer. The standards have dropped to the extent that any team in the annual Phillys Games can beat Bafana Bafana in the first half.
As a tournament, the Phillys Games are the equivalent of what structured competitive school sports used to look like. They dispel the myths about lack of talent in South Africa. We have massive talent, but the system forecloses and destroys talent because it is corrupt, inefficient and uncompetitive. Just imagine that we have about three million registered players in South Africa and yet some want us to believe that we lack talent.
At the level of international relations, Brazil is able to use their investment and prowess in football to attach a foreign policy strategy in the national interest. The victory of Bafana Bafana in 1996 served our international prestige and public diplomacy very well. Lately, our prestige in football comes as a result of being hosts to football tournaments. We are kings of logistics. Today, if Kaizer Chiefs and Sundowns can reach the finals of the CAF Champions League, it will be a coup for our foreign policy and international prestige. But do both teams have the necessary quality and stamina to do it? Can you see the potential and power of football?
Because of hypnotism, we have been made to accept that the coach is king. And so, once more, we shall be lulled into the same old trick of hiring a new coach and forgetting about the new quality players we need to succeed. It is as if the coach plays the game. By a thumb suck guestimate, a coach has no more than 15% impact on any given football match. The 90 minutes belong to the players. It is players who win and lose games. At an elite level, the players make the coach and not the coach who makes the players.
As I surrender my pen on Bafana Bafana, I hope we wake up from the years of Safa’s hypnotism about a messianic coach. And I hope the younger coaches like McCarthy do not get tempted to take the poisoned chalice and consequently delay and derail their career prospects. Bafana Bafana must withdraw from continental and international tournaments for six years while we rebuild for the medium and long term.
David Maimela is Executive Director of The Polisee Space, a pan-African public policy think-tank.