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Football is a game of emotion and, at times, extreme emotion, depending on the outcomes on and off the field. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, many lay football supporters are, in a sense, coaches in their own right.
At the same time, football can inspire and unite a people, foster social cohesion and promote national prestige. All these things played themselves out when SA hosted the 2010 World Cup.
Last weekend’s performance against Ethiopia, after a period of mediocre results, and the subsequent departure of coach Pitso Mosimane has brought mixed feelings for most South Africans. The outcome of the Ethiopia game and the coach’s sacking both represent a loss.
This is yet another wake-up call for South African football. This sporting tragedy reaffirms the need to put forward a sustainable vision and a strategic plan, and to mobilise the people behind a strategic thrust.
No doubt, our football system is suffering from persistent systemic weaknesses. Most weaknesses are as a result of poor development capabilities, insufficient application of science, mismanagement of the football economy, an incoherent relationship between the professional league and the association, insufficient leadership at all levels, and so on.
If this situation does not change in the next few years, we will continue to hire and fire coaches without success. The pressure in our public space after each major disappointment by Bafana Bafana is perhaps a necessary evil to force us to change the thinking, the strategy and management approaches to football across the board.
The management of the national team through appropriate coaching and technical capabilities and the identification of the wealth of talent in our streets, as well as development, are two sides of the same coin. The former makes us succeed today and the latter makes us succeed tomorrow and, hopefully, sustainably.
In other words, if the feeder system is weak, unco-ordinated and unplanned, the elite level (national and PSL) will produce unsatisfactory results.
The early exit of Orlando Pirates from the African Championship is another example of these persistent systemic weaknesses. Neither our league nor our national teams are competitive on the continent.
Football in SA already has three key ingredients for success: abundant talent, enthusiasm and support (financial, infrastructural and people). It is for management and leadership to be aware of these ingredients and take advantage of them. Certainly, a holistic strategy is needed and must be long-term and sustained.
If anything, the anger after the match against Ethiopia is a reminder that South Africans have not forsaken football. But we must remember that, even if we had won, the systemic problems would not have been resolved. This is to emphasise that we all need to mature beyond short-term gains.
The successful technical symposium held by Safa earlier this year is a step towards a football renaissance in SA. If the federation and all its partners build on the outcomes and momentum created by the symposium and last year’s National Sports Indaba, the country can turn the corner sooner rather than later.
Informed by this consideration of long-term and strategic approaches, 18 months ago the Mapungubwe Institute (Mistra) initiated re- search on the philosophy, science and art of football in SA. The study involves sports scientists and technical experts as well as former players and coaches who have shown an interest in such research, including officials from Safa. The aim is to make a contribution towards sustainable approaches to resolving the systemic weaknesses in our football system.
From the work done thus far, the study confirms the following:
n We have few structured youth football development programmes, which are not sufficiently competitive and are poorly co-ordinated.
n Our talent identification is almost non-existent.
n Football management has not moved with the times.
n Training and coaching methods are not standardised.
n Mental and psychological training and support is insufficient.
n Football research is limited to medical and scientific aspects but even in these areas it is inadequate.
SA is a developing country with pressing social problems, so state financial support to sports will remain insufficient in the short- to medium-term. This calls for more creative and effective ways, involving the private sector, to develop the football and sports economy, as done elsewhere in the word.
But it would be wrong to blame resources for our woes. Compared to other African countries, SA enjoys better sporting infrastructure and financial resources; yet we have not extracted maximum value from this advantage. The questions of leadership capacity, scientific approaches and deployment of available resources come out in even bolder relief.
In the end, to eliminate these systemic weaknesses, a combination of complementary short-term and long-term approaches must be embraced.
In some instances, as Egypt and Germany have done after persistent poor performances, it may be necessary to forgo immediate gratification and lance the boil from its root – including massive changes to the national squad itself.
The footballing fraternity as a whole has to reach out for the dream.
n Maimela is a researcher at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra), and co-ordinator of the football research project.