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The sporting year has ended with the Springboks and Proteas taking on the best the world can offer at rugby and cricket, and they performed admirably.
At the same time there have been mutterings about the racial composition of our two most successful national sides.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe criticised the selection of Patrick Lambie ahead of Elton Jantjies for the Test match against Ireland.
“The situation is the coaches select the basic minimum black players in the team and relax thereafter and overlook good players,” he was reported as saying on the SuperSport website.
Whether it’s fair to criticise a coach, whose job is on the line, for going with the players he believes can win the game for him, is the big question.
Heyneke Meyer never had a problem with choosing Bryan Habana, or JP Pietersen or Tendai Mtawarira, so it was wrong of Mantashe to say “the new coach is not keen on putting black players in the team, even those that have proven that they are the best”.
Sport in this country is, however, still divided and unequal and there are undoubtedly those who are left out in the cold through no fault of their own.
The only way that we will turn out national teams that are demographically representative, and capable of beating the best, is to fix all that is wrong with our sporting structures.
It was with precisely that in mind that, this time last year, a National Sports and Recreation Indaba was held at Gallagher Estate. A declaration was published that encapsulated the problem and offered solutions, to be incorporated in an updated National Sports and Recreation Plan (NSRP).
The declaration recognises the importance of developing sportspeople from an early age, and of the role that schools must play in that process.
It says, for example: “Sustainable talent identification, nurturing and development programmes are required to contribute to holistically transforming the sports and recreation sector.”
Among the practical implications coming out of the indaba was a declaration by the minister that “sport will be reintroduced to schools” and that physical education would become part of the school curriculum again.
A memorandum of understanding was signed between the departments of Basic Education and Sport and Recreation and it was announced that Wednesdays would become school sport day.
A schools league programme was launched by the ministers in March this year and there was a call for schools to register to participate in athletics, netball, football, cricket, rugby, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball and chess.
That close to 14 000 schools registered showed that there was a desperate need for something like this. The programme culminates this week with the SA Schools National Championships in Pretoria.
However, there hasn’t been much acknowledgement that school sport has been going on at many schools all the time, and at a very high standard.
It is from those schools that most of the players in the successful Springbok and Protea teams mentioned above have come.
The re-introduction of sport to schools where it had all but disappeared should be seen as a necessary first step in the continuum referred to in the Sports Indaba declaration.
At our top sporting schools there will be multiple teams playing in each fixture.
For example, when King Edward played Jeppe earlier this year, there were 21 rugby teams and 13 hockey teams in action on the day.
It takes time, money, and dedicated teachers to make that happen, and it’s part of a long-standing tradition. And it’s out of that big base of players that schools like those eventually unearth the special talents that go on to play provincial and international sport.
It’s highly unlikely that league competitions involving one team per school would have the same success.
Rugby and cricket are the major sports played at the private and former model C schools. Those are the better-resourced schools.
The national cricket and rugby federations play a huge role in the talent identification process followed in those codes. They attract sponsorship and stage interprovincial tournaments at various age levels at which the top players are identified and put into talented player programmes.
But the selection process for the provincial teams, and their coaching and management, is down to the teachers who spend hours of their own time, without pay, to ensure that the best players from their regions are put forward to be recognised.
Then the teams and their management give up their school holidays to attend the tournaments.
The best players of that particular year will all be in one place at one time, which makes it an ideal setting to see who is making progress and the unions and universities are always there to cast an eye over them.
Soccer, our most popular sport, follows a different model. They too have sponsored national tournaments in each age group, but the teams participating are the individual champion schools from each province. There is no provincial selection, so countless talented players are left at home.
The professional teams send scouts to those tournaments and they hope to attract a few players to their ranks. For those who don’t get the nod, it’s the end of the road.
So why doesn’t soccer follow the successful cricket and rugby model? First, soccer is not the main activity at the schools that typically provide the provincial rugby and cricket players.
So the many talented players participating in the competitions organised between those schools are not part of the plan as far as ensuring a better football future is concerned.
I’ve been told that “interprovincial competition is not in the DNA of football”. Soccer is a club sport around the world and the tribal nature of the game will be lost if representative teams are chosen.
I understand that, but it doesn’t make for effective talent identification and it may explain the poor performance of our national football teams.
The news last week that Safa CEO Robin Peterson will head a new football development agency that will have access to Fifa World Cup millions is encouraging. Here’s hoping that he realises that future success has to be based on an effective development structure starting off in the schools.
If we are serious about transforming sport, the provision of facilities, equipment, coaching and leadership at under-resourced schools has to become a priority. And someone has to have the political will to tell the teachers there to roll up their sleeves and start delivering.
Build the base of available players, and adopt a model that makes it possible to identify and grow the best of them. Then we can start looking at non-sporting reasons for why players of colour are not being selected for some of our national teams.