The State of South African Soccer

Matshidiso Madia Matshidiso Madia

South Africans are a proud nation, South Africans are winners and South Africans believe in Madiba magic, all of which seem to be lacking when one looks at the national football team.

‘Bafana Bafana’ as they are fondly known, seem to be missing a winning formula. They are often making headlines for their losing streaks, constant draws with B-Grade teams and the endless changing face of the coach of the national side.

At its best the South African national squad was rated number sixteen in The International Federation of Association Football rankings in 1996. Since then their average has hovered in and around the 60’s mark and has left many of their South African fans yearning for the soccer heroes of yesteryear.

The organisation appointed as the guardian of football in the country, the South African Football Association, has often been fingered as an institution characterised by failed management and internal conflict, as well as the main source of the country’s footballing woes.

Bafana Bafana in Action  

Eyewitness News spoke to the different ‘players’ involved in local soccer to try figure out the true state of South African soccer.

The League has it:

Incredibly popular and astute businessman Dr Irvin Khoza is often portrayed as the be all and end all of the sport. Owner and chairman of one of the country’s largest soccer clubs, Orlando Pirates, he’s also the chairman of the country’s Premier Soccer League as well as a vice president of SAFA. The ‘Iron Duke’ as many know him, is perhaps one of the few people who are able to credibly explain football in South Africa, having also been an important part of the country’s successful bid and hosting of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup.

Khoza says firstly people must differentiate between the professional and amateur league. He represents the former, but also has some insight into the latter. Before discussing challenges facing the world of SA soccer, he explains that organisations running football do not communicate a lot of their successes. In terms of administration the country’s league is one of the best governed in the world, they have set a benchmark in arbitrating matters affecting football, they are establishing themselves in the global community and for the most part their fans and sponsors are happy.

“You need to remember that football is a game of opinions, South Africa has quality players and a lot of depth” is what the business mogul says before acknowledging that the country’s capabilities will always be judged on the performance of the national squad. Khoza says an aspects that needs immediate attention to help South Africa improve its international rankings is the selection process - speaking of a need for transparency when it comes to selecting coaches and players to represent the country, adding that the role of agents should also be scrutinised and made clear as to the amount of influence they have in the selection process.

Over the years the media has reported on a supposed difficult relationship between the PSL and SAFA, both organisations that Khoza is at the helm of. He says he is aware of the ‘perceptions’ and admits that the FIFA calendar dates have been a contentious issue in the past, where SAFA would request players from clubs for dates that were not accommodated for when the PSL planned their competitions around the FIFA calendar which featured the official fixtures. He says that problem shouldn’t persist any longer as they have set up a committee to resolve it.

The word “development” seems to bring up a lot of emotions… it almost looks like this is where the country’s problems lie. Many young children are still playing on substandard fields without proper equipment and guidance. Khoza’s comments on football at school level also reflect this issue, his concerns are that it seems as though soccer is popular until about Grade 6 and is then pushed to the sidelines to make way for its two other popular contemporaries; cricket and rugby.

Fans at the Orlando Stadium after an Absa Premiership game 

Khoza also points out a need for good coaches at the lowest levels of football in order to assist young players grow up with good ‘player habits on the field’ “by the time a child is 14.

In his view, development of the sport remains a fundamental challenge that requires a lot of creativity and investment. He says local clubs run academies that burn out as the year goes because they are doing it purely based on a passion to groom young talent, but lack the necessary resources to go further. In Khoza’s view SAFA is making some headway towards reenergising their efforts to find a solution… whether those efforts will show in the public domain remains to be seen.

The sideline observer:

Passionate, articulate and well versed when it comes to football, Lelo Mzaca has spent several years covering sport for Eyewitness News because of that he has a lot to say about the state of soccer in the country. He comes with insights beyond the field, whilst remaining far enough from the pitch to feel most football fans’ frustrations.

Mzaca notes the importance of looking beyond the present, saying one has to worry about the players’ futures. “Too many soccer players die broke”, he says, so there is a strong need to have better financial planning in place for them and some sort of medical aid. Speaking of players he says most of the country’s sportsmen struggle to meet international standards, adding that our goalies are so short they’re often overlooked by international clubs.

Mzaca says South African football is in a terrible state, pointing towards the minimal effects of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup within the sport. He asks where are the artificial turfs and regional offices which have all yet to be established. He too, like all the other parties EWN spoke to is concerned about the level of development. Mzaca says we have people playing professional soccer but struggling to grasp the concept of the first touch and looks forward to a day when SAFA and local schools find a way to develop the sport from the ‘ground up’ - stating, “You start with the basics from the age of 6 or so, that way by the time they get to professional level they have grown with all the good habits that differentiate between mediocre and greatness”.

At development level:

Perhaps the most exasperating place within the football fraternity is reserved for those at the bottom of the pyramid, the ones who are meant to be experiencing the sport’s development from grassroots level. Highlands North sports coordinator Tshepiso Madia coaches both high school football and rugby. He says in South Africa those two games not only differ in the way that the ball is handled, but the way their administrators run them. “South African soccer and rugby are so different; rugby development puts SAFA to shame in more ways than one”.

Madia, like all the other key players in the sport, believe development is pivotal for a great footballing nation, however he feels that there’s not much development. He says the lack of communication between the schools’ soccer body; South African Schools Football Association (SASFA) with the coaches is a major problem. Madia cites a lack or late notification of fixtures as common practice, and says they only host five cup games a year as opposed to establishing a strong schools league which will help raise the level of football played at schools level. He also questions the structure of SASFA, adding that staff movement at the organization is seldom explained. “A chairman steps down, someone is randomly appointed and when you ask why you are told that is not on the agenda”.

He continues, “I wish SAFA would work on making SASFA’s presence in schools more prominent, I’ve never seen an official at any regional games, I don’t think the kids playing believe they are taken seriously by the guys who run the sport”. When asked to explain, he says in rugby opportunities of growth within the sport are made very clear to everyone - from the coaches to the children participating in the sport, it’s a well-known fact that scouts are always on the lookout for talent and rugby officials are often seen exploring new ways to better the sport.

Asked what could be done to help school level soccer his responses mainly focus on a need for communication, accountability and transparency in the way school soccer is run and he, like the PSL’s chairman, emphasises the need for trained coaches to be in charge of football at schools level. “Some of the teachers left in charge of the learners have never played a sport in their lives, how can they be responsible for the country’s future strikers?” he asks.  Madia says SASFA needs to work on its structure, he believes as it stands, schools in the townships suffer because of a badly run sports body. He also touches on the budget, saying there’s no clarity as to what budget is given to schools and says if at the start of the academic year they could lay out their budget, plans for the year and fixtures that would make a great difference. His parting words, “In a perfect world, SASFA would make sure all kids play on the same quality grounds, guided by quality coaches with a clear view of where they could end up if they focus on their game”.

Members of the Dreamfields Project playing a game of soccerYoungsters playing soccer at their local grounds 

The mother body:

Numerous attempts to reach SAFA have been futile and perhaps this is the main problem. The custodian of South African football is hard to reach and aside from that, struggles to make time to speak about the concerns of the man on the street.

The one obvious need that stands out from all involved in football is that the sport’s future lies at grassroots or school level and as a result, this is where all parties need to rally if the country’s rankings are to improve.

When the SAFA President Kirsten Nemathandani won the Association’s presidential election in 2009 by default under the umbrella of the Football Transformation Forum (FTF), he pledged to “address issues of football development, ensure we (the FTF) put structures together and make sure we have a SAFA which listens”.

In 2010 Nemathandani said football at school level was important to improve the quality of soccer. He also said they hoped to reach every corner and every child in SA, adding then that the struggle they faced related most to infrastructure. He also called on parents and communities to assist the organisation in their objective of growing schools soccer.

It’s halfway through 2012 now and still there seems to be no improvement in the state of football in South Africa.

Moving forward:

As far as the national football squad’s concerned they’ve just been handed a new lease on life in the form of Coach Gordon Igusund. He’s currently settling into his role and assessing the state of the current team in hope of helping them reach their full potential and become a winning squad.

Next year the institution’s presidency will be in the spotlight as they hold their presidential elections and if the SAFA regions are serious about progressive football, they will have to look at amending their current policies and fulfill the ones that they believe will turn the state of football around.

 *Tshepiso Madia is related to the author