Johannesburg - South Africa hope for glory when the Africa Cup of Nations kicks off Saturday, but a match-fixing scandal, a poor standard of domestic football and mismanagement cast shadows over the hosts.
Bafana Bafana (The Boys) won the tournament as hosts in 1996, but many supporters doubt whether they can repeat the feat, even with home advantage and tens of thousands of supporters blowing very noisy vuvuzelas (plastic horns).
Despite boasting by far the richest national league in Africa with a $1.2 million (902 000 euros) first prize, no South African club has won the CAF Champions League since Orlando Pirates succeeded 18 years ago.
“Players don't have enough international exposure at club level. When they go to the national team, that gets exposed,” said Matshelane Mamabolo, an award-winning Johannesburg Star football writer.
“When you move to international level, nothing really is happening. The junior teams are virtually non-existent,” he told AFP.
So, ironically, the highest-paid footballers on the continent, earning up to $563 000 (423 000 euros) a year, are usually early casualties in pan-African competitions.
Just months before the Africa Cup, a FIFA investigation uncovered a major match-fixing scandal ahead of the 2010 World Cup hosted by South Africa, with friendlies against Thailand, Bulgaria, Colombia and Guatemala allegedly fixed.
The report claimed some South African Football Association (Safa) officials worked with the Singapore-based Football 4 U group and, with the collusion of convicted match-fixer Wilson Perumal Raj, fixed the four games by using referees who made a host of dubious decisions.
Five senior Safa officials, including president Kirsten Nematandani and acting chief executive Dennis Mumble, were suspended pending an internal inquiry last year.
However, the bans were later lifted on a technicality, and the probe postponed until after the Africa Cup, which finishes on February 10.
Adding to the woes of Safa, just four months into the financial year they are reportedly $1.1 million (845,000 euros) in debt.
Corruption is believed to be rife in lower-tier leagues, but usually only referees are punished, while clubs and senior officials are let off the hook, said Mamabolo.
“In football, there are untouchables. That set a precedent. People felt they can continue to do it and not get punished,” he explained.
“There's a feeling people are not in it for the love of the game, but to line their pockets.
“Virtually the same people have managed the game since South Africa were readmitted to international football in 1992 as the apartheid regime crumbled.
“They are not doing enough to develop the game beyond the elite Premiership league,” Mamabolo said.
Last year, eight Premier Soccer League executives paid themselves bonuses running into millions of rand, but the second-tier league did not have a sponsor. - Sapa-AFP