Durban – A tree grows from the bottom up. That much is not rocket science, but as we survey the football landscape of South Africa, it is abundantly clear that most of our key stakeholders are still looking at the senior national team as the main concern.
While the rest of Africa show us what the future holds for them, in a tournament being fought out by others in our backyard, the nation winces in the weary confirmation that, despite the billions that have come in and out of our coffers, we still have an Everest to climb.
“Of course, the problem is not just at the top,” former Bafana player Delron Buckley said this week.
“Yes, it is disappointing to see the national team play like that, but who would want to play for them after what was said about them this week? Players are now petrified of expressing themselves and making mistakes, and that can’t be good for our football long-term,” he pointed out.
Buckley, now at Maritzburg United, spent more than a decade in the German Bundesliga, and just one word sums up the difference between German football and South African football, he explained.
“The people of Germany are always labelled as efficient and thorough, but the key is their level of accountability. If someone in Germany tells you that they are going to do something, they do it. Simple as that.”
The German example – where everyone involved in their sport recognised that their great team of the 1990s was being left behind by the next generation from Spain, France and Holland – is being regularly pulled out when surveying the state of our football.
German football authorities got clubs to buy into the long-term vision and the trend of splurging on foreign stars subsided, and local talent was given the opportunity to emerge. It’s no secret that German football is back at the top table now, ahead of schedule, as they still say.
In Germany, the jewel in the crown is the national team. In South African football, can we even dare to dream of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates sacrificing their ambitions for the greater good of our football?
“The key there is that everyone bought into the vision in Germany because they understood that they were falling behind,” Buckley said. “Over there, it is a law that clubs have a proper development structure. And by proper, I mean all the way down to under-5s. A boy can come into a club at that age and work his way through the system until he reaches the top.
“A tree grows from the bottom up. If your roots are strong, the tree itself will flourish,” Buckley expanded. “If our development structures can be taken seriously – and I don’t think they are at the moment – then we will see a difference. The national team will take care of itself if there is a definite plan to harness talent.”
Club administrators in South Africa pay lip-service to development, preferring to go shopping for cheap, ready-made options in fertile football territories like west Africa. That lazy approach is what keeps our football where it is; a commercial success on the surface, but morally bankrupt at the core.
Clubs will pass the buck to the SA Football Association (Safa), but they also have a role to play in the cultivation of our future stars. The lucrative TV deals on the table have allowed clubs to get lazy, and where they used to urgently send players overseas to land a transfer fee, they are now happy to pay them a small fortune and keep them at home.
Where does that leave the next batch?
The matter at hand here is the future. Stories of a player growing through a club’s development structures and eventually playing for the first team are few and far between.
Several national players have collected well over 50 international caps, regardless of form fluctuation, because the competition behind them is non-existent. There are no youngsters in the under-23 or under-20 team that have already been identified as successors.
South African football is still employing a scatter-gun approach, plucking anyone who has a half-decent month in the PSL and touting him as the next Bafana hopeful.
And those players at the top, who should be pushing for a move overseas, are now able to buck the trend started by Lucas Radebe, Shoes Moshoeu and Phil Masinga, and carried on by the likes of Buckley, Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy.
“For us, going to Europe was always the biggest ambition, because that is where you could change your life. But with the money in the local game now, players are happy to stay here and earn a very good wage,” Buckley said.
And, ironically, it is that money that is crippling the feeder system, as experienced players who should be in Europe are sitting pretty and holding up the emergence of the next wave of hopefuls.
At the lower levels of our football pyramid, the money is heard about, but never seen.
“It starts with fundamentals,” said Enzo Coppola, a former top amateur player who is now head coach of Riverside FC, in the Durban Central league.
“The money is most needed at the bottom levels. You look around and fields are derelict, and it’s no wonder that kids are disillusioned with the game. The love for the game is still there, which is why you see a full stadium when Manchester United or City come out here,” he explained.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks, Coppola points out, is that the South African football ladder is not designed for a Cinderella story.
“As a small club, there is very little chance of you ever climbing the ladder, all the way to the PSL. Whenever you get close, there is a whole load of play-offs that you have to get through, and yet only one team drops straight out of the PSL.
“The system is designed to maintain the status quo, make sure that the guys at the top, with all the money, stay there.”
There are even quotas at club level, with each club having to field three under-21 players at all times. It is no wonder that our football is in this malaise, when Safa considers a player of 19-20 years in a development age, when the rest of the football world considers them as ready for professional football.
“We don’t even see the regional Safa guys,” Coppola lamented. “We have league meetings right next door to their offices, but you never see them there. All they do is pass on whatever legislation comes from Joburg, and there is never an explanation. They can’t honestly say they are in touch with football at grass-roots level,” he argued.
Like many dismayed patrons of the game, Coppola and Buckley agree that the root of the problem in South African football is greed. The power – the money – is held by a select few, who are happy to grow as individuals, instead of trying to revitalise the wider community.
“The saddest thing here is that back in the day, before we had international football to aim for as players, all the amateur leagues ran like clockwork. It fed to the NSL teams, and there was a culture of club football, from juniors all the way up to the top,” Coppola bemoaned.
“How, when we now have so much more money within the game, do we allow things to go so wrong?”