The tale of the South African national soccer team, aka Bafana Bafana, is your quintessential story of footballing regression.
From the dizzy heights of winning the Africa Cup of Nations tournament on their first try in 1996, to the recent 5-0 drubbing by Brazil, our footballing fortunes have been spiralling earthward like a burnt-out rocket from space.
We have now hit rock-bottom.
This in a country that boasts world-class facilities and is not devoid of football talent.
The rot started in 1997 when, shortly after winning the prestigious continental trophy of 1996, Clive Barker was fired by the head honchos at the SA Football Association for failing to make the grade in Saudi Arabia in the Confederation Cup.
In they brought exuberant Jomo Sono, who dismantled the 1996 Cupwinning squad with alacrity. At the press conference to announce the 1998 World Cup team to France, he pranced around like a peacock boasting to the media that he’d “showed those superstars the door ...” For this he was applauded by local scribes.
The “superstars” in question were the match-winning likes of Doctor Khumalo, Neil Tovey, the late Sizwe Motaung, etc. Ripping the guts out of the team that had tamed the best in Africa, he brought in unknowns like Pierre Issa, who he introduced to marshal our central defence, playing for South Africa in his first tournament – at the World Cup. History shows that we never stood a chance in France and came back having not won a game. It was cold comfort that we only managed two draws in our group, against Denmark and Saudi Arabia.
A few years later at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, our Under-23 team featuring newly unearthed gems like Benny McCarthy and Siyabonga Nomvethe played against the likes of Brazil, who they convincingly beat 3-1 in the group stage.
That team came back to rot in relative obscurity. Only a few like Benny McCarthy made it into the senior squad. Still, they were the only SA side to beat superstars Brazil in a competitive tournament.
Yet nobody at Safa thought of building a team from such brimming talent.
In 2003, an under-12 team marshalled by erstwhile Sundowns midfielder Harold ‘Jazzy Queen’ Legodi, and affectionately dubbed ‘Tsetse Flies’, won the World Nations Cup in their category. They came back home to muted applause. Still nobody at Safa Towers thought of nurturing them into becoming our future national team. Those promising youngsters, having conquered the world of football, were dumped back home into the dustbin of history.
The point I am making is that lack of development is nothing new in our footballing woes. What has been consistent is that the failure of Bafana Bafana has been blamed on a variety of factors, including various coaches who were hired and discarded like used paper napkins. Initially buoyed by patriotism and working on the notion that “local is lekker”, we stuck to local coaches. When this seemed not to work, our soccer authorities cast their net worldwide and brought in foreign ones in droves. This culminated in the hiring of Carlos Parreira during the 2010 World Cup that SA hosted.
Despite the sinfully high salaries these coaches commanded, we failed even to make it from the starting blocks into the knockout stage of that competition. Back to the basics for Safa meant reverting back to local coaches. Pitso Mosimane and incumbent Gordon Ingesund were parachuted in but also failed to ignite Bafana into world beaters.
Playing in patches of brilliance, Bafana have since failed to qualify even for local competitions such as Afcon.
In all these years when we changed coaches and recycled tired players, one thing has remained consistent. The people in the top echelon of our soccer administration remain relatively the same personalities and in Shakespearian language, “that is the rub”. Very little has over the years changed at the helm of this ship called Safa and it continues to sail into uncharted waters with broken masts, skippered by a leadership that had run out of answers and ideas of how to arrest the total deterioration of our football and navigate it back to prosperity.
That is the real tragedy.
Take the 1996 Afcon-winning squad. They went totally ignored by Safa and local national team coaches in being brought on board to assist with the mentoring of new players. While TV broadcasting agencies realised their intrinsic value and roped some in to offer intelligent commentary on aspects of the beautiful game, our soccer authorities shunned them like they were from a leper colony.
One would have expected players like Lucas Radebe, Neil Tovey, Doctor Khumalo, Mark Fish and their ilk to be part of the initial World Cup squad technical committee. Instead, one found people whose footballing CVs boasted little of substance brought in as assistant coaches and part of the technical committee. It was simply a case of who they knew and not what they knew. It became painstakingly clear our soccer authorities had reached a cul-de-sac of creativity when recently it was announced through the media that one of the symptoms responsible for Bafana’s woeful performances can now be blamed on their name. Such paucity of imagination, while it can resonate well with populists, is not only pathetic but ridiculous. If a name could ignite or destabilise team spirit, why is it that our national cricket team with a name like the Proteas are world beaters. Are we also forgetting that when South Africa won the 1996 Afcon, the team was known as Bafana Bafana, which went on to become a popular world brand. To now even suggest to discard the name will make us even more of a laughing stock to the world than our monumental losses on the field. Imagine world response when our public relations people go out there to try and explain the rationale for dumping Bafana.
How simplistic can we be? In the past week in one of our weekend newspapers, a popular South African soccer scribe pointed out that the difference between Bafana and Brazil was that our players were largely indecisive. He quoted Parreira as saying, tongue-in-cheek, that in Brazil “we have players who can make a decision”. What he actually meant was that our players were not bold enough to take shots, especially when faced with the goalposts.
While I don’t necessarily disagree, I would add that the current focus on our players’ ability is as unfair as it is irrational.
When soccer players play to a coach’s instructions and lose, the right person to take the blame is the coach. It is becoming fashionable to lambast our players who have been called names even by our politicians. They have become the easier soft target to blame rather than escalating the blame upwards, being made sacrificial lambs to the bumbling, downright inefficiency of our footballing authorities.
To my mind, the other real difference between the Brazilian and South African approach to the game is simply the latter’s lack on continuity. We have over the years failed to build into the future despite hordes of talent exhibited by our emerging young footballers, as I have already pointed out.
The rot starts at the top and we should look at Safa House for answers to our footballing woes. When the head is ailing, the body cannot function. - Sunday Independent
Maisela is a management consultant and published author of fiction novel ‘The Empowered Native’