SA soccer captain Neil Tovey, flanked by FW de Klerk, left, and Nelson Mandela, right, holds aloft the Africa Cup of Nations trophy after beating Tunisia 2-0 in the final. Picture: Touchline Photo

IWILL never forget that evening in 1992, when South Africa played its first official friendly at international level after the readmission of our country into the ranks of Fifa following a lengthy period of suspension from the governing body of world football.

The game took place at the King’s Park rugby stadium in Durban, which was packed to the rafters and the memory of the capacity 56 000 crowd singing Shosholoza after South Africa beat Cameroon 1-0 with a Doctor Khumalo penalty will ring in my ears forever.

I remember thinking at the time that nothing would stand in the way of our country’s rich football heritage taking on the world with our unique blend of talent and passion for the game.

In 1996 that feeling was reinforced when, under the guidance of coach extraordinaire Clive Barker, the boys representing South Africa won the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, and when captain Neil Tovey raised that coveted trophy in Jburg standing next to President Nelson Mandela, there was a huge wave of enthusiasm all around the country, particularly within the football fraternity.

However, from the moment Barker was inexplicably forced out of his job by Safa, just after his team had qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France, everything in South African football began changing, and quite sadly, began leaning towards the negative.

To begin with, Safa decided to partition the whole country into different regions and districts.

This meant teams and clubs were only allowed to play against others that fell within fairly close proximity of their own district.

Safa’s motives are not known, but that decision has been one of the most debilitating for the standard of our junior and amateur football.

The effect has been to dilute the standard of football, as there is a situation now where there is no strength versus strength scenario.

Many districts across the country are losing membership at senior club level, and in consequence there are fewer junior teams playing in competitive, organised leagues in many districts.

A clear example of this is right here on our doorstep in Pinetown and Districts, who are making valiant attempts to resurrect their junior and senior football. The same applies in Pietermaritzburg.

Another decision by Safa that has impacted extremely badly on the standard of our football is the abolition of all representative age groups and senior football.

In the old days the better players received colours for representing their districts and provinces and there were annual inter-provincial tournaments. These are no more.

Furthermore, the decision by central government and municipalities to withdraw long-term leases from all sporting clubs and facilities has had a crippling effect in many communities. There are grounds in and around Durban that were once hubs of excitement, brimming with junior and senior football, yet from the time the municipalities took the leases away, these have been left to rot and are now havens for vagrants and criminals.

Those grounds that are controlled by the municipalities and are currently in use are not upgraded or maintained at an acceptable level and, in fact, some are in a downright disgraceful condition (this is a common problem across the country). In the rural areas there are many fields with no grass at all.

Yet football carries on. Kids from young ages grow up playing in atrocious conditions where they get used to “keeping the ball in the air”, because it is not possible to play a passing game, and those very few that make it all the way to becoming professionals are suddenly expected to play Barcelona-type carpet football when they reach a mature age.

That is just not practical, no matter how good a player might be. There has to be proper tuition and coaching for kids from well-coached coaches, starting at a very young age, and this development process should be uninterrupted for many years, so that there is gradual and constant improvement.

The kids should grow up playing on good fields and enjoy decent facilities with floodlights, clean ablution facilities with running water, be part of properly organised and run league structures, and not have to put up with age-group cheating, which is rife across the country and, for some strange reason, particularly so at some illustrious clubs.

It is a win-at-all-costs attitude that is not doing the development of the game any good at all.

Corruption is also rife at upper amateur as well as at the semi-professional level. Money changes hands on a weekly basis from club owners to referees and between clubs as well, with a view to fixing matches. This is a fact and is one of the reasons football is stagnating.

Clubs must be able to see a clear path for their future. This creates excitement and investment in the game across communities.

There are too many one-man bands in the semi-professional leagues, and they should be encouraged to join others by forming clubs within their community and be forced to have their own junior structures and reserve teams. This will stimulate development across the board. The under-23 rule which is currently being used is counter-productive and should be dropped immediately.

One of the most important factors we desperately need to fall into place if we are going to create good future Bafana players is school football. In the past few years quite a few schools have started casual non-competitive leagues among themselves and this is a good start.

However, to expect kids with a passion for football to play for only four to six weeks of the year, because they are only allowed to play in one term, is not the way we can hope to unearth a Lionel Messi.

Kids need to play all year round, and when they are of age should be taking part in competitive leagues to prepare them adequately for the future. As I have mentioned, the coaches have to be coached properly, so that they can teach the kids proper techniques from a very young age.

The South African Premier Soccer league is reputedly the richest league in the continent.

This is precisely our problem: all the money generated is fed in from the top down instead of from grassroots upwards. Safa has committed the equivalent of football genocide in the past 20 years by denying millions of kids a fair chance of achieving their football dreams.

Quite frankly, there are too many members of Safa and the PSL executive who have been serving for far too long and they keep retaining their seats despite all their failures.

There is no accountability for each member of the Safa executive and they appear to have jobs for life. There are a number of them serving on those committees that have their own clubs. That is a clear conflict of interest and they should step down. Where are all those Fifa millions from the 2010 World Cup? Will they ever get spent where it will make a difference to people in all communities? These are questions that demand answers as a matter of urgency.

If one adds up all that has been going on in South African football for many years, it all points to the fact that although Bafana, under the excellent coaching of Gordon Igesund, may be enjoying a purple patch at the moment, it does not mean all is well in our football. Far from it: local communities have been up in arms for many years, stumbling from year to year in the hope of improvement, imploring their toothless local football associations for assistance and getting none.

Safa should desist from handing down autocratic decisions to their regions for implementation and begin consulting with all the relevant people to make things work for the sake of football. People who make football tick in this country by using their own hard-earned cash receive no funding at all from Safa.

Get the grassroots right, set achievable and sustainable short-term and long-term plans and begin implementing them effectively, for the love of the game, giving kids of all races a fair chance, and in years to come Bafana Bafana will claim its rightful place near the top of world football.

l Coppola is a local soccer coach and former Durban City player