Time for the SA soccer circus to get serious
By John Carlin
A year ago Tshisahulu, in Venda, staged its own mini World Cup. It was a weekend soccer competition featuring a dozen or so schools from this poor rural outpost in the far north of the country. The occasion was the inauguration of two new soccer fields where before there had only been empty, stony ground.
There was an opening ceremony full of colour, music and dancing; the national anthem was sung; the teams, dressed up in kit quite as sophisticated and complete as you'd see in the Real Madrid youth teams, competed with huge intensity, but in a spirit of fair play; there was a penalty shoot-out and there were tears for the losers and joy for the victors.
Everything - from the impeccably marked regulation pitch to goalposts to balls to kit - was supplied courtesy of a fabulous South African NGO called Dreamfields Project, which has built 10 more such fields and provided top-class gear to thousands of children in some of the remoter, less privileged parts of the country. I was there in Tshisahulu that weekend last year and it is one of the great memories, among so many, that I shall preserve of South Africa.
Dreamfields is not acting alone. Fifa and Safa have launched big projects of their own and there is a wonderful football training centre that has just been inaugurated with Nike in Soweto. All of which is to say that a fine platform is in place that had not existed before to give South African football the boost it needs to claim its rightful place among the big nations of the world.
What else is needed?
First and foremost, a serious commitment from Safa to raise the game to new levels of excellence. A system must be put in place to identify talent nationwide and then pick the talent and nurture it in academies of excellence.
What will these academies teach? I think it is critical that South Africa define a style of play. At the moment it's a mish-mash. A bit of English rough and tumble, a bit of African touch play, at times attacking, at times cautiously defensive, hoping to get something on the break, hoping the solitary centre forward gets lucky.
No clear image comes to mind when you think of the way Bafana Bafana play compared, say, to the Spanish world champions, for whom patient possession and slick passing is all, or the second best team in the World Cup, Germany, who out of nothing redefined themselves as a swift, swashbuckling football nation.
There was a fascinating article recently on the BBC website by Jurgen Klinsmann, the German coach before the present one, Joachim Loew, in which he explained how the national game was re-thought and then built up after a disastrous European championships tournament in 2004. The young team that surprised the world in South Africa was the fruit of that clearly defined and rigorously implemented effort.
It entailed, first, obtaining agreement from the totality of the German football world, from fans to administrators, on what sort of football they wished the national team to play. The consensus was, in Klinsmann's words, that they should aspire to play "a fast-paced game, an attacking game and a proactive game".
They then encouraged all First and Second Division clubs to set up academies built on this philosophy. They worked hard on fitness, too, and later strove to gather together the national squad for as long a period as time allowed.
I am not saying that South Africa should emulate the "pro-active" German style of play, or the Spanish possession one. Not at all. South Africa must figure out what sort of game emerges naturally from its own football soil - what it is that best suits the national culture, the public's dreams?
There can be no question that the talent exists in the Rainbow Nation. Also the hunger to succeed, both at individual level and as a country - a significant part of whose collective pride comes from success in sports.
One last thought. In identifying the players best suited to fly the flag, look for skill on the ball, look for stamina and/or pace, look for hunger, look for professional dedication. But also look for good, intelligent guys. Spain showed the importance of these two qualities, neither of which perhaps receives the attention it deserves among football observers.
Good guys are team players who put solidarity with the collective above their own personal glory (the squabbling England team, with its gaggle of spoilt celeb multi-millionaires, showed by their abject failure how valuable a commodity a strong team spirit is).
As for intelligence, it is perhaps the quality to which the talent scouts who hopefully will be unleashed on every last corner of South Africa - Venda not excluded - should pay closest attention.
You can have all the ball trickery that you like - and there is plenty of that in SA - but if you don't really understand the game known to its original inventors as "association football", you're not going to be much good to anybody outside a circus.
South African football has been, since the African Nations Cup glory days of 1996, a bit of a circus. Time now to get serious, time to get intelligent. Then, with the wonderful raw material available in this country, anything is possible.
Including manufacturing a football team capable one day of conquering the world.