Rodney Reiners

CAPE TOWN – If there’s someone whose football brain I simply love to pick on a regular basis, it’s Sergio dos Santos.

Having played for Hellenic and Kaizer Chiefs, and having coached a host of clubs around the country – including Santos, Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates, Hellenic, Cape Town Spurs and Ikapa Sporting – he has a wealth of knowledge and experience.

But, boy, the tales he can tell, the anecdotes he can relate. Like a grandfather telling old war stories, Dos Santos is a delight when it comes to chatting about football.

It was during one particular discussion with the man – who is now the head of Ajax Cape Town’s scouting department – that he regaled me about his time at Chiefs, both as a player and a coach.

One thing that caught my attention was his explanation of the culture at the Soweto club, still the country’s most popular and best supported football team.

He spoke of the humility with which young players came into the squad. For example, back then, footballers like Marks Maponyane and Wellington Manyathi (both went on to achieve great success) had to toe the line.

They were fully aware that they had to go through a growing and adaptation process at the club – and it wouldn’t be uncommon for senior players like Ace Ntsoelengoe and Jan Lechaba to slap them down if they got too big for their boots.

Dos Santos also mentioned how seriously the players took their responsibility as club ambassadors, both on and off the field.

Because of the status of their brand as a big club, and their importance as role-models to a wider society, the players knew that they had to conduct themselves in the correct and proper manner.

For South African football in general, this does appear to be an issue. Young footballers coming through the ranks these days don’t understand the history and the culture of the clubs they are at.

They show a little talent as a junior and they think that’s it, they’ve got it made. But success at a higher level involves a lot more than just ability; it’s about hard work, courage, commitment and above all, humility.

In football, in life, the significance of role-models can never be underestimated.

In the same way that it has always been vital at Chiefs, I remember during my playing days when, as a 16-year-old, I first came into the Factreton FC senior team and I was guided and nurtured by role-models like Lionel Williams, Edmund Hendricks and Errol Mullins.

When I got to Santos in the mid-1980s, I found a bunch of superb professionals on whose coat-tails I could further develop, like Steven Hendricks, Kevin Valentine, the late Trevor Daniels, Stevie Williams, Rashaad Davids, Carl Solomons and, of course, the inimitable Duncan Crowie.

Even at Manchester United, they are singing the praises of veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic and how his innate and extraordinary professionalism will benefit the club’s youngsters in the future.

This culture of the role-model, which flourished at Chiefs back in the day, is in fact perhaps the very reason why both football and South African society as a whole always finds itself treading water.

In the same way that we have young footballers dismissing the history and culture of a club, together with the hard-won knowledge and experience of senior players, so, too we are seeing an eroding of the culture of respect and tolerance in this country.

Because of our turbulent history, and the disdain and contempt with which people of colour were treated in the past, Chiefs always knew they had to ensure that their footballers and officials were symbols of pride.

That when their players strode on to the field, that when their players were in the public eye, they were examples of success, of a positive black image, and of dignity, respect and admiration.

Straying from the history, tradition and culture of a football club is perhaps in some small way similar to understanding the changing culture in other entities.

And need we elaborate that, with the ruling party, we are no longer seeing the traditions of the organisation that inspired me as a student at UWC during the tempestuous 1980s.

It is no longer the party of dignified role-models like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada.

And, in keeping with the general thread of the column, is that not perhaps why we are where we are as a society?

Cape Argus