It’s been brilliant and epic and wonderful to watch, but it’s also brought a stark reminder of just how far removed South Africa is from this rarefied world of power and precision. We cheer when a local side puts together eight or 10 passes, or a game produces three goals. At the World Cup that has been standard fare. In Russia, the shot takers have been surgical and direct, the pace has been heady and the organisation and control slick.
It’s not entirely fair to gauge Bafana Bafana against England or France or Belgium - resources alone can’t compare - but if our players are to aspire to even qualify for the World Cup, these nations are the measure for excellence. They point the way.
It might be more helpful, certainly more apt, if Bafana Bafana studied Croatia’s system. The “Vatreni” reached the final of the World Cup despite a soccer environment that could charitably be called chaotic. There is no clearly-defined national youth system and just one club (Dynamo Zagreb) produces almost all national age-group players.
The game is played amid a dysfunctional political system with the top local players earning around R15000 per month. There’s a rotating door at the coaching office and grassroots development hardly exists.
And yet, somehow, remarkably, the team found a way to play through this morass to reach the final, going one better than reaching the semi-finals, as they did in 1998 (just three years after the war for independence). No-one quite knows how they manage it with these impediments, but one view is that they have come to embrace the disorder and forge a fierce sense of spirit out of their shortcomings.
It’s a ballsy approach by a nation of just over four million.
There is a common thread that runs through England, Belgium and France, the other semi-finalists.
Their elite football is well run and their academies are well stocked, producing athletic, smart players who live cleanly. Few smoke or drink, preferring the cooler distractions of Twitter or Instagram.
For all the might of the Premier League in England, coach Gareth Southgate managed to position country above club in his quest to power the team. This is a vital development given how England’s commercial heart rests with the club system and, inevitably, local passions too.
There’s another lesson for South Africa: Altogether, 107 players who appeared at the World Cup play their soccer in the Premier League, which reflects the virtues and strength of the league, which is demanding and rugged and spits out slackers. Not a single South African competes in the Premier League, although Percy Tau has just signed for Brighton.
South Africa’s top players just don’t mix enough with the world’s best, Keagan Dolly of Montpellier being among the rare exceptions. Home comforts be damned - it’s a habit that must change.
Belgium and France draw much of their excellence from their multicultural environment. Remarkably, 17 of France’s 23-man squad are sons of first generation immigrants, a sign of the country’s liberal leanings and determination to draw from a well that contains a multitude of talents and styles.
Belgium reap the benefits of an organised grassroots programme that took hold in the early 2000s. There was a direct focus to improve technical skills and a drive was launched to assist development. Significantly, soccer was targeted specifically to integrate migrants, making them part of the broader community.
It’s little wonder that 11 of Belgium’s squad are from migrant backgrounds, most famously Romelu Lukaku, whose roots are in the DRC, and Marouane Fellaini, whose parents are Moroccan.
With few exceptions, they are celebrated as wholly Belgian stars. Indeed, if Belgium is constantly at war with itself, chiefly over differences between the Flemish and French-speaking regions, soccer is a unifier thanks to the “Red Devils”, who punch above their weight for a small nation of just 6.5 million.
We’ll marvel at tonight’s final, but should do more than that – our soccer community should draw from the profound lessons offered by Russia 2018.
Our game deserves better.