Goals, interrupted: Why SA soccer sucks

Senegalese goal getter Mame Niang football. (Gallo)

Senegalese goal getter Mame Niang football. (Gallo)

First, a story. In the off-season a South African goalkeeper popped out of the country to train with a European club. This was not a glamour club – a Real Madrid or Manchester United – but one that occupies an honourably middling position in one of the top three leagues on the continent, providing one of the national team’s three ‘keepers at the World Cup.

When the visit was over, the ‘keeper’s club received a technical report from Europe.
“Your goalkeeper is too short,” the report read. “He lacks distribution skills. He would struggle to play professionally in our B division.”

The sensitivities of the anecdote prevent one from naming the player and the club, but the player in question has played international football.

This seems to be the South African environment in a nutshell, a small, prosperous and self-regarding universe, orbiting in increasingly larger arcs around the suns and bright planets of the world game. Once was a time when the Benni McCarthys, Phil Masingas, Quinton Fortunes and Mark Fishes of the world were able to command phenomenal salaries in top European leagues.

Despite the advances of Kamohelo Mokotjo at FC Twente and Thulani Serero at Ajax, that time is long gone. One can’t imagine a South African campaigning in Europe nowadays, doing what Fish once did at Lazio and refusing a trial at Manchester United because he considered it beneath him.

Norway and the Bundesliga
One fair-minded observer of the local scene is the Senegalese striker Mame Niang, Mamelodi Sundowns’ recent R4.5-million buy from SuperSport United. The youngest of nine children, Niang has played in Norway and the Bundesliga (briefly) but still considers his time under Gavin Hunt at Moroka Swallows as the happiest of his professional life, scoring 14 Premier Soccer League (PSL) goals in 2005/6. “I was getting great service from [winger] Cecil Oersen and Alfred Phiri. It was a good time.”

Last season’s leading goalscorer was Kaizer Chiefs’ Bernard Parker, with 10, and goal scoring – or lack of it – has become a fashionable stick with which to beat the league. At the end of last season Hunt fulminated in his endearingly stroppy way about strikers’ lack of quality, noting that Grant Young and Gerald Stober were once regularly banging in 20 goals a season at “pokey” Hellenic.

He recognised that defences have become better and teams more compact but still, Parker’s 10 goals hardly represent an excuse to party. “The quality of the service is poor and the strikers make bad runs,” said Hunt, although he failed to recommend how this could be rectified.

Robin Petersen, head of the South African Football Association’s (Safa’s) development agency, is an evangelist for better, more widespread coaching at an earlier age. “Studies have shown that the ratio of A-licence coaches to players in Spain is 1:17. Here it is 1:200. We are embarking on a massive coaching and education rollout in the next 10 years but we are constrained by funding and where exactly to focus,” he says, the idea being that, with better grassroots structures and coaching, the professional product will improve.

Niang says the standard in the PSL has improved marginally since his time at Swallows and notes that the top four or five sides are highly competitive, as evidenced by last week’s cracker, in which his side were on the receiving end of Kermit Erasmus’s artistry in their 3-0 drubbing by the Bucs. He’s particularly impressed with Chiefs’ George Maluleka, and his former teammate Sameehg Doutie at SuperSport United, believing that they should be more highly rated than they already are.

Against this he contrasts inconsistency, a culture of arriving at practice drunk, and a lack of player ambition to succeed elsewhere. He says that the West Africans have the jump on South Africa when it comes to producing players, with the two main Senegalese academies lobbing 35 players into Europe alone in the past three years.

Where the league has grown phenomenally for the better is in the protocols demanded of it by the irresistible advance of television. Irvin Khoza, the PSL’s chairman, says that once fixtures were changed on a whim, but this is no longer the case; in 12 years since the advent of his chairmanship, the monthly club grant has gone up cumulatively from less than R100 000 a month to R1.5-million a month a club.

Grounds are better, practice facilities are better and the league is altogether a sounder commercial product, allowing Khoza to concentrate on issues such as the copyright of broadcast content and the league fixture list when it comes to the fixtures being appropriated by the pools.

“There was a time when journalists used to copy team lists from a handwritten sheet on to the back of their cigarette boxes,” says Stan Matthews, the league’s former chief executive. “Those days are long gone.”

When asked whether football made the best use of the post-2010 World Cup period to attract new fans to the local game, Khoza answers that the arrival of DStv in many homes has been invidious because it has provided a comparison. “There are structural deficiencies in our country that no one talks about and so we compare products as equals. We are a society in transformation and that applies to our soccer.”

Khoza is also proud that, with rare exceptions, R40 will get you into a league fixture, which surely represents value for money. As befits someone who grew up on Alexandra’s mean streets, he has remained loyal to his – and the sport’s – working-class roots, but this brings headaches even he cannot solve. He bemoans, for instance, the lack of parents and parental support in the lives of our young footballers. Could the apparent stagnation of our football be solved, in part, by a whole lotta love?

There is, of course, no silver bullet to remedy a host of ills, including indifferent coaching outside the top tier, poor refereeing – particularly in non-televised matches – and a lack of leaders across the board.

Extra practice
Khoza points out that David Beckham wasn’t scandalously gifted but sharpened his game through hours of extra practice, something locals seem loath to do. Niang says notions of professionalism need to be widened, with players changing their lifestyles and eating and training habits.

Petersen’s use of the Spain example as an indication of how many coaches South Africa needs to train has an back story. In 1982 Spain hosted the World Cup with 24 teams participating in a convoluted structure that led to the infamous “Disgrace of Gijón” match in which West Germany and Austria contrived to keep Algeria out of the next round.

By drawing with Honduras, beating Yugoslavia and losing to Northern Ireland, Spain crept through to the second round on three points, a point less than what South Africa earned in their qualifying group in 2010. Spain couldn’t progress beyond that, however, the competition being won by West Germany.

In 1982 Xabi Alonso, the anchoring midfielder for the World Cup-winning side in South Africa, was six months old. Andrés Iniesta, his 2010 World Cup teammate, wasn’t yet born. The moral of the story? The true worth of hosting a World Cup might only be recognised in generations to come. It is what is done afterwards, not before, that truly matters.

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