Going through immigration processes in Europe can at times be daunting, not least after a 10-hour flight, but a conversation with an official at the Amsterdam Airport this week turned out to be an eye-opener.
After languidly handing over my passport for perusal of credentials and permits to enter Europe, the said official asked those tedious, tiring questions which can make you want to slap him.
“Where are you from?” South Africa (as if my passport says something else!)
“What is your final destination?” Warsaw, Poland.
“What are you going to do there?” I’m a football journalist assigned to cover the friendly match between South Africa and Poland.
Clearly this immigration official was clued up about football, so once I had told him I was covering the SA national side, he rattled off a few names he thought would be in our squad for Friday night’s friendly.
“Oh, so Benni McCarthy is there?” No, injured. “Steven Pienaar?” No, retired from the national team. The conversation with the official woke me up to the reality that he could not name other South African players beyond the two.
Of course, it is to be expected that many people in Holland would be familiar with McCarthy and Pienaar, for it was at Ajax Amsterdam where the duo launched their careers which, in the end, became illustrious as they turned into household names throughout Europe.
But with Pienaar now retired from international football and McCarthy nearing total retirement from the game, who will take over as the international face of Bafana Bafana, someone whom immigration authorities would ask you about once you declare you’re following the SA squad?
There was a stage when Bafana had recognisable players in competent European leagues, long before McCarthy and Pienaar arrived on the scene.
New Bafana recruit Ricardo Nunes, when asked if he could name even a single player in the current squad, stated he knew of men such as Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish and Quinton Fortune, “because they all played in England”. There was also Sibusiso Zuma and John Moshoeu.
When he reported for camp for the first time this week, Nunes could hardly remember some of the names of his new team-mates beyond the training ground.
The reality is that SA teams are no longer exporting talent like before, and even those players who make it abroad play for low-key teams. If they are in teams with higher profiles, they fail to make the grade and end up being relegated to the bench or sent on loan.
Others who get a rare opportunity to attend trials overseas have to squabble with their local teams, who feel it is an “insult” to invite players for a mere look-in when they should be signed outright.
Those lucky enough to pass such trials do not last either, as they tend to complain of boredom, homesickness and adverse winter conditions after a few months. They then return to SA, where they are allotted false hero status.
But for Bafana to be a force again, they will need more of their players to make the grade in top leagues.
People like Radebe, Fish and Fortune flew the flag for several years, not merely making squads of their club, but starting in big games and competing in Champions League football. They handed over to the likes of Pienaar and McCarthy, but as both have surely now reached the end of their international careers, others must take over the baton.
In this current camp there are players such as Tokelo Rantie, Dean Furman, Dino Ndlovu and May Mahlangu who all are based in Europe but sometimes that’s not enough. Bafana can do with players in top clubs, seen every weekend on TV screens throughout the world, and talked about in clubs and bars beyond SA.
Now, could Thulani Serero be the next player I’m asked about when I enter Amsterdam next time? Only time will tell.