CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 19: South Africa during the 2014 African Nations Championship match between South Africa and Nigeria at Cape Town Stadium on January 19, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Shaun Roy/Gallo Images)

Sport is an economic sector and involves psychology, medicine, management and other sciences, writes Joel Netshitenzhe.


The dramatic exit of the national football team from the African Nations Championship (Chan) 2014 tournament last Sunday has caused tempers to flare. This is a reflection of the deep passion South Africans have for the senior national team and the sport in general.

Passion has its place in human society and more so in sport. It can be a key driver for the pursuit of excellence. But it can also generate self-immolation. Indeed, the question needs to be posed whether South Africa has sufficiently reflected on the real state of football and the measures required to realise its true potential.

Many who support domestic football confess that, last Sunday, they set out to flip TV channels. Around the same time as the game against Nigeria, Barcelona was playing Lavante in a match that was to define the configurations at the top of the Spanish La Liga; and, similarly, Chelsea was battling it out with Manchester United in the English Premier League.

This was perhaps a touch of flagging African pride and a lack of South African patriotism? Or was it, as these football fans explain, a feeling of déjà vu? We have seen it all before, and investing one’s emotions in Bafana Bafana has become a serious health hazard.

The fact is that, save for the Icarus moments of the mid-1990s, Bafana Bafana have often flattered to deceive.

Some pundits have advanced interesting technical analysis of the match and Chan 2014 as a whole. They refer to the defensive posture of the coach. They point to that seeming lack of passion in the field.

They argue that, in the game against Nigeria, some of the pillars of the team – specifically from Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs – were never going to give their all, given the top-of-the-league table clash between the two, four days later.

They refer to the mind games before the match, with Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi “modestly” expressing reverence for Bafana Bafana and the South African coach, and singling out precisely some of the players from Kaizer Chiefs as the biggest threats. Then there was the contrasting performance during the two halves.

Players from specifically Nigeria and Ghana, the pundits further argue, were going to perform in Chan 2014 in a manner that they have never shown in the build-up to, or during, previous tournaments.

Many in both teams are either fringe players or first-comers to their national teams; and they still stand a chance of being selected for the World Cup later this year. Besides, while Nigeria and most other teams selected very young players for this tournament, the youngest in the South African squad was 24 years old.

And so, the analysis can go on. This may be a bit of technical nit-picking.

But contained in this are profound issues that the SA Football Association (Safa), the Premier Soccer League (PSL), government and supporters of football at large need to interrogate. If there is a vision for the long term, what balance should be struck between that long-term trajectory and pursuit of instant gratification? Should this Chan have been about today’s Fifa rankings and epaulets for the coach and administrators? The truism that a long-term vision does at times require sacrificing today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s rewards needs to be internalised across the board.

In 2012, the Mapungubwe Institute (Mistra) released a research report that looked at the state of South African football, with emphasis on long-term development and application of scientific approaches to the development of the game. It confirmed some of the clichéd truths, but some important new insights have emerged.

Among others, the study found that most of the documented research and knowledge on South African football is based on studies done outside the country. Indeed, compared with other sporting codes, football is under-researched. To build consistent international competitiveness, the role of research and development must be a strategic priority.

Another important finding relates to the lack of specialist coaching for the youth: it requires tailor-made, scientific approaches.

The mental and physiological make-up and demands on a teenager are not the same as on a senior team player. Besides this deficit, South Africa seems to suffer from debilitating ageism.

The young Chan 2014 players from countries such as Nigeria and Ghana are already actively plying their trade in local leagues, and some were recalled from trials abroad. In South Africa, many young players in PSL teams are twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines. And there is no serious reserve league to speak of.

Modern football has developed, with ever-changing, specialised needs and demands placed on supporters, players and managers, on and off the field.

For instance, a lot of work and specialisation goes into pre-match, during-the-match and post-march analytics, training, planning and management. No one aspect or department can function optimally without the input of the other component parts.

Approaches to the game have become so nuanced that a complex of management, coaching, training, talent identification and retention, as well as scientific, nutritional, medical and psychological aspects combine to determine whether a team stays on top or not.

In addition, international comparative analysis identifies good working relations between professional leagues and football associations as an important ingredient to success. For instance, in Germany, the football association sets standards on youth development programmes that clubs in the professional league are compelled to comply with as part of licensing.

The consequence has been a marked improvement in their senior national team after a slump in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inversely, in England, the dominance of the professional league’s rapacious commerce over the national football association is in part responsible for the poor performance this country has experienced since it last won the World Cup in 1966.

Of course, the socio-economic profile of South Africa may not allow for some of these improvements to take place at once, given the funding levels and sources of income.

However, what South Africans cannot claim are privations that surpass those of fellow African countries which perform better. These countries have developed their own systems that tailor pursuit of excellence to their socio-economic realities.

It is not that South Africa lacks a comprehensive diagnosis of the sorry state of its football. Nor are we short of strategies to help banish this malaise.

Incidentally, and in part because of the involvement of some Safa technical staff members in the Mistra research project, the findings and recommendations of the research were not much different from issues that have informed Safa’s latest strategies and inspired the formation of the Safa Development Agency.

These range from school sport to nutrition, medical and sports science expertise in youth development structures, a functional reserve league, and technical teams staffed by specialists in all areas demanded by the imperatives of modern football.

Arising from the Mistra research and interactions with Safa and the PSL, the following issues require addressing:

n Resolving the tension between Safa and the PSL and ensuring that the legitimacy and authority of Safa is earned and asserted in a systemic manner, with both having a professional bureaucracy that transcends electoral cycles.

n Implementing the variety of youth development strategies that have been identified, using the platform of school sports, the centres of excellence that Safa proposes and the development structures of the PSL teams, with clear minimum standards to which all should adhere.

n Developing a network of researchers in universities, with specific focus on football, and ensuring that these researchers serve as the brains trust of Safa and the football fraternity as a whole.

n Mobilising society to appreciate the development strategies and the pathways to long-term success, and ensuring that expectations are tempered to this reality.

There should be appreciation that football is about more than just 90 minutes of the game. It is about the philosophy of human relations; it is an economic sector in its own right and is about psychology, medicine, management and other sciences.

It has the potential not only to promote national unity and social cohesion, but to reinforce the self-esteem that is so critical to all other national endeavours.


** Netshitenzhe is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute (Mistra).


**** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

- Sunday Independent