Sport

Bafana boys, meet the men of Brazil

Mark Gleeson

The South African soccer team style their play on the South Americans' carefree approach to the game, but can't mirror their discipline.

Neymar scored a hat-trick in Brazil's 5-0 victory over Bafana. (Gallo)

Carlos Alberto Parreira was trying to temper the impact of the crushing defeat on his former employers but his words of consolation after Wednesday's massacre at Soccer City served only to emphasise the fundamental ills of the South African game.

Ever the diplomat, the polyglot, who now serves as Brazil's assistant coach, stressed the difference in the quality of the two teams and insisted South Africa did not do too badly in the midweek international.

Who was he trying to fool?

But one innocuous sentence summed it all up and must be the phrase the football's leaders take back to their inevitable repeat session in front of "the drawing board".

"We have players who can make a decision," said Parreira as he gently explained the difference in quality between Brazil and Bafana, putting a firm finger on the reason why South Africa floundered so badly against the 2014 World Cup hosts.

Expectations
Repeating November's win over Spain was never really a consideration but a fighting performance against Brazil was at least expected from a full-strength national side, with coach Gordon Igesund's future on the line and many players under a stark spotlight.

Instead, the chasm created by defensive indiscipline, midfield timidity and an inability to create a real scoring chance was heightened by an endless turnover of possession as players made all the wrong moves.

Decision-making lies at the heart of the ills of the domestic league game, too, and it all comes from development devoid of tactical discipline.

South African youngsters are not taught to play in formation, keep shape, track back, pass quickly. Instead they are encouraged just to play, with swerves, tricks, acceleration of pace and short passes earning far greater appreciation than tackling, shooting, crossing and the other boring fundamentals of the sport.

Of course, allowing a free-for-all does bring out the natural flair in the one or two individuals gifted with special skills but for the rest it means developing as footballers on the wings of natural ability rather than on a modern foundation.

'Enjoy yourself'
Even at professional level, this indiscipline continues. We often hear coaches tell players to "go out there and enjoy yourself", which is shorthand for "just see what you can come up with and I hope it is magical and benefits the team because I know you can't play to a pattern anyway".

To change this would be to be accused of stifling natural flair or going contrary to the "African way". But, frankly, world football has long left behind the attitude of "just go out and there and let's see what you can conjure up".

Decision-making in sport is mostly natural, a gift. But making the right choices in a game also comes from repetitive training from an early age. This has passed South Africa by, to the growing detriment of the national team's results, for several reasons.

There is none of the requisite infrastructure at junior level that most major footballing playing nations enjoy, both in terms of facilities, clubs and coaches.

Then there is the socioeconomic context in which soccer is bling – a forum to show off and earn adulation. The way the game is approached also reflects South African society's largely carefree ways and the demonstrative enthusiasm Africans have for sport, far removed from the cold, clinical efficiency of Western Europe, for example.

These are factors to be accepted, maybe even embraced.

Lessons in discipline
But they must also be countered, to some extent, once a young player reaches a representative level, so that future professionals and internationals learn earlier than they do now the disciplines of modern football.

South African football needs to look at bridging the deficiency in early development once the players are on the brink of turning professional.

It is not the ideal solution as it would be better to train talent at a younger age but it is the reality of a large country where rolling out mass-action programmes will just not work.

Wednesday's defeat – the heaviest in Bafana history – will hopefully also put an end to the misconception that South Africans play like the Brazilians. It is a myth perpetuated from the days of black-and-white newsreel footage of Pele and company conjuring up outrageous trickery to become the best in the world.

But the highlights gave a false impression of the carefree approach, never showing the calculated edge to the way Brazil play and their pride in defensive and midfield acumen.

It could be a positive from Wednesday's disappointing defeat if a desire develops to emulate those Brazilians traits.

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