Damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, Safa has been making cutbacks. But it has also been neglecting development.
Robin Petersen is peeved. But he is not about to quit in a huff, as the current fashion among local football supremos demands. The South African Football Association (Safa) chief executive has been in his position for a year, which makes him a veteran compared with recent Premier Soccer League bosses Stan Matthews and Zola Majavu, who both threw in the towel after a few months in the position.
Petersen's beef is a flurry of media reports attacking the association's cost-cutting drive, which is intended to eliminate waste and focus spending on development.
"For years people have been saying Safa needs to change, that it is dysfunctional. Now that we're finally changing we get attacked," he said last week. "There's a culture of schadenfreude – a delight in failure – that has a long history in South Africa. It's something that football and other black-run institutions have to deal with."
Bashing the media is a well-worn diversionary tactic, but Petersen does have a point. Although Safa has certainly earned its reputation for shoddy planning, it is far from the root of all evil in South African football. Safa confronts a yawning knowledge gap that dates back to apartheid isolation. It was widened by the passage of the "lost generation" of the early 1990s and again by the recent atrophy of sport in township schools.
Petersen estimates that South Africa has one coach for every 3 000 (often inactive) players, whereas Spain's ratio is 1:16. Hence a massive coaching education programme is the core of Safa's plan to put South Africa in the top three in Africa and among the top 20 in the world.
For a decade the local game has thrived commercially while stagnating on the pitch, largely because there is no quick financial return on investment in youth structures.
It does not help that public exasperation with Bafana Bafana feeds back into underperformance.
"Safa and the national teams are actually regulators of the national psyche," said Petersen. "They are one of very few institutions that set the psyche; they don't just reflect it. That's a humbling and daunting realisation."
Humbled or not, Safa officials are still finding time for petty feuding. President Kirsten Nematandani's administration – led by members of the Football Transformation Forum lobby group – face increasing resistance from the Irvin Khoza-aligned camp that lost the 2009 election.
Disgruntled staffers at Safa House allege anonymously that the 32 executive committee members are burning millions on business-class flights, cellphone bills and luxury hotels. And last month's decision to outsource Safa's books to accounting firm Ernst & Young raised eyebrows.
But Petersen insists financial management has been sound. "We had an unqualified audit last year and another one will come this year," he said. "I have no evidence of corruption. The change was made to save money, boost efficiency and give comfort to investors and sponsors."
To the fan in the street, however, Petersen's vision of a "lean" operation might sound amusing not least his definition of voluntary work. "Everyone thinks the exco members are fat cats," he said. "But the work they do for Safa is voluntary. They get an honorarium of only R100 000 a year for their work. Almost every weekend they tend to provincial affairs, visiting the regions, attending football events. If you're on a company board, you might have four meetings a year and you get your R100 000 and nobody questions that."
The high life
Clearly, the money blizzard of the World Cup habituated many Safa suits to the high life. With Fifa gone and sponsorships shrinking, some juicy sinecures are now at risk. It is no surprise that the knives are out.
Although the necessary sacrifices are being made – committees, programmes and staff numbers will all be slashed – action on priorities has stalled. The Transnet School of Excellence at Esselen Park, once a talent factory and earmarked as a national academy, has been decrepit for years. Fifa is ready to fund improvements, but only when Safa has legal title to the property, which is owned by Transnet.
The Fifa-Safa Legacy Trust is finally ready to disburse its R450-million of World Cup proceeds to community football projects – two years after the event. Applications for funding close at the end of August.
But plans for nine provincial academies have remained in the waffle phase since 2010. There is still no sign of a much-trumpeted technical master plan workshopped at a symposium of coaching experts in February. A key brief was the definition of a national style marrying the highest technical standards with a local "flavour". Former Bafana coaches Carlos Queiroz (in 2002) and Carlos Alberto Parreira (in 2010) wrote blueprints for a national football system, but neither document was implemented.
"We are far behind deadline on the master plan," said a top delegate to the symposium, who did not want to be named. "Some recommendations are urgent and could have made a difference in six months if implemented. They would help Gordon Igesund's preparations for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Safa's leadership is not reactive enough."
But out in the sticks tangible progress is being made. The 2010 organising committee's legacy pitch project has built 27 artificial pitches in rural towns from Tzaneen to Mount Ayliff to Upington, using R170-million of Lotto funding. Another 25 were planned, said project manager Joe Carrim.
The pitches do not come cheap at about R6-million apiece with clubhouses included, but they will promote good technique on a consistent surface that is immune to drought, flood and constant use.
Carrim promises a windfall of talent from the pitches, which have become buzzing football hotbeds. "They will be used day and night, which will allow kids to play more often," he said. "Until we give the poor access to football, we will struggle to reach the top three in Africa."
Broadcaster John Perlman, who founded the Dreamfields youth football project, agrees. "We're coming off a low base. The quality of play at u-12 level hasn't been that good," he said. "But we're seeing that kids improve very quickly just by playing regularly. And there's an emphasis now on half-pitch games, which give more touches to each player. With full-pitch games, kids develop power and distance, instead of learning angles and support play. And bigger boys tend to dominate, which means there's an incentive to bring overage players."
Such modest interventions could prove momentous in a decade. But every myopic political skirmish dims the dream. The stalemate between vision and greed grinds on.