Bafana Bafana's football has devolved into the equivalent of a vuvuzela chorus: plenty of huff and puff, but there's no tune, writes Carlos Amato.
Is it just a coincidence that the rise of the vuvuzela over the last decade has coincided precisely with the decline of Bafana Bafana as a force in African football? Probably.
Even so, it's a telling coincidence. The national team's football has gradually devolved into the kinetic equivalent of a vuvuzela chorus: an unorchestrated mess of individual impulses. There is plenty of huff and puff, but there's no tune.
And on Saturday, Gordon Igesund's Bafana hit the bummest of bum notes against the canny Blue Sharks of Cape Verde, a team representing a population one hundred times smaller than South Africa's.
Barring a few minutes of cohesive play in the second half, the hosts were shockingly frenetic and sterile in attack – in depressing contrast to the fluent excellence of the Democratic Republic of Congo in yesterday's 2-2 thriller against Ghana.
Bafana players who have been trained together for several weeks, including many who play together at club level, couldn't anticipate each other's movements or passes. Which begs the question: what the hell have they been doing all this time?
The hapless Igesund blamed nerves. But most of his players have ample experience of big games; anxiety should energise professional athletes, not freeze them.
Just as unsettling were the signs of petulant bitching we saw on the pitch. On more than one occasion, when a pass failed to reach its target, the intended recipient would gesticulate angrily at the passer, instead of applauding the effort. That's not what hard-up fans pay good money to see.
Bafana's weaknesses have often been unfairly exaggerated by demanding fans and journalists, including this writer. But it's hard to recall a shoddier 90 minutes of football in 21 years of Bafana history, despite the solitary point earned.
It is too soon to be this gloomy. Maybe a dramatic recovery against Angola in Durban on Wednesday will open up a passage to the quarterfinals. Maybe Bafana will find some presence, unity, patience and pleasure in their work.
And of course it's pointless to pillory the players or the coach, who are the product of a league and a society that are both equally addicted to short-termist thinking and easy rewards. On Saturday, Bafana's passing echoed the unproductive movements of the South African mind. We prize money itself instead of the labour, creativity and attention to detail that creates wealth. And our football obsesses about goals instead of the craft that leads to goals.
Far too little of the PSL's sudden surfeit of broadcasting income – about R3.6-billion between 2008 and 2017 – has been or will be invested in youth academies. Most of that money swills around in glossy media packaging, undeserved salaries and bloated cup tournaments that encourage frantic, ugly football. Meanwhile the mandarins of Safa, the custodians of the game's future, hold an endless mad-hatter's tea party of waffling and buck-passing.
The 2010 windfall is quietly rotting our game, just as the financial excesses of the Premier League have rotted English football.
On a broader scale, Bafana's football illiteracy mirrors our culture of intellectual laxity, which is rooted in the toxic soil of apartheid philistinism and watered by the ANC's nativist complacency. It's a culture that produced the soft logic of outcomes-based education and the empty shibboleth of ubuntu.
To cite a petty example, this is the culture that prompted the Afcon 2013 Local Organising Committee to decide that print journalists don't really need desks or plugs to do their jobs at the National Stadium.
So we shouldn't really be surprised or outraged when we're dished up with crude outcomes-based football. It's just a game, of course. But it must mean something that South Africa is so bad at a pursuit at which it has thrown so much public and private money.
Meanwhile, to our north, Africa is booming and advancing, in football and business alike. Nigeria and Kenya are both threatening sooner or later to usurp South Africa's position as the powerhouse of continental growth.
We have long ago lost our status as a football powerhouse. Unless we get a grip and start paying attention to the things that matter, we could soon become minnows of Africa in the tournament of real life.