CAPE TOWN - Football should be fun. No, in fact, scrap that - football is fun. I was acutely reminded of this when the Johan Cruyff Foundation opened a Cruyff Court at the Nobantu Primary School in Gugulethu last week. The reason why this struck me is because, in South Africa, with regards to football at all levels, we appear to have forgotten the gospel that football is fun.
Think back to your own time as a kid, when first discovering that sheer, almost mystical joy of discovering this wonderful, all-consuming sport called football. The complete abandonment you surrendered to, and the love and passion it stirred deep with your soul. Can there be a feeling more intense than this? Can there be an emotion more ardent, more profound than this? (PS: please don’t let my wife read this, else I’m in the dog box for weeks).
Former Ajax Amsterdam, Southampton and Everton manager Ronald Koeman, whose exploits as a player at Barcelona still fire up my memory banks like the lights on a Christmas tree, is one of 14 ambassadors for the Johan Cruyff Foundation. Last week, in Gugulethu, both Koeman and the Foundation’s director, Niels Meijer, spoke movingly about the motivation behind the building of Cruyff Courts around the world. At the moment, including last week’s unveiling in Gugulethu, there are five in SA.
But the message from Koeman and Meijer was not just about football, it was also, more importantly, about how the development and nurturing of the children. Active kids, they believe, move up; so they also work on building social skills like self-esteem and respect for others. In short, it’s about the holistic growth of the child.
Above all, though, the thread that ran through the entire programme last week, was that the kids should have fun. Because, as Koeman stressed, football is fun. It’s why we first start to play the game, and it should always be the guiding motivation, irrespective of the level the game is played at.
And, boy, is there a lesson in that for us in SA football. A major problem we have is that kids learn to win before they can actually play. We teach instant gratification because we demand victory above all else, to the detriment of the full development of the child.
The fun, the excitement and the normal, gradual progression of the child have been drained from the sport. As such, we churn out adults with no respect, no self-esteem, no tolerance and no patience.
Yesterday, in Guguletu, Cape Town, our ambassador @RonaldKoeman opened a brand new Cruyff Court with the players of @ajaxcapetown. This is how we help active children in South Africa move up! #CruyffLegacy #becauseactivechildrenmoveup pic.twitter.com/OVvCdOXRmz
We stand on the side-lines of the junior fields on weekends and hurl all manner of abuse at kids and coaches - all because we want to win. We suck the freedom of expression and fun out of the kids - because they aren’t supposed to enjoy themselves, they are supposed to chase early, instant success. We don’t allow them to develop at their own pace and enjoy the game - because victory is more important.
Let’s even cast this very same leitmotif and apply it to this season’s PSL. It has been a season riddled with soulless goalless results, ponderous, pedestrian score draws and anaemic, downright unimaginative performances from teams that ostensibly play at the top level of club football in SA. And, for my 10 cents worth, from watching a lot of PSL football, what is definitely lacking is “fun”. Players just don’t look like they are having fun; they look like they aren’t enjoying the game.
Everything is geared towards not losing; clubs in the PSL are governed by the fear of failure. So it’s all about caution and inhibition - and it’s easy for players to do so: because freedom of expression and fun have already been coached out of them. There are no smiles on the faces of PSL footballers, instead they perform as if they are in the grip of terror, frantically pursued by the reincarnation of Freddy Krueger.
In the PSL, it’s about players reining in their natural instinct. And the end result is the declining quality of the football you see in the PSL. In essence, let me say it again: Football in SA has long ago forgotten that the sport is about fun.
You just don’t see players enjoying themselves; you don’t see them revelling in the exhilaration of the game; you don’t see the sheer rapture - the feeling they had as kids - that football can inspire deep within. All you see are players grabbing for the rand, itching for the bonus, and passing the time until the end of the month rolls in.
Fun? What fun? Football is not about fun - for them, it’s just a job. And, to quote from Hamlet’s soliloquy, “there’s the rub”: Yes, of course, it’s a job, but it’s also about fun and expressing yourself as a player. Importantly, for both coaches and players, it’s about taking responsibility for their roles as entertainers - not clowns with tricks, but football played with technique, intelligence, attacking prowess, love and passion. But, above all, with fun.