/ 12 April 2019

Development football’s icky years

Aiming high: Making a living from football requires early investment
Aiming high: Making a living from football requires early investment, whether you grew up playing with makeshift goalposts in dusty fields or in fancy urban Soccer School franchises. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

For many South African boys — and increasingly girls — there’s only one answer to the age-old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Everybody wants to be a footballer, to make a living doing what comes naturally on the playground. Where do you sign up? That’s the part that’s not entirely clear. Becoming a professional footballer is more than natural talent and hard work. It requires structure, support and dedicated teachers who are willing to sacrifice their own time to prop up the dreams of others, crucially from a young age. In this series, we look at what it takes to get to the highest level and at what avenues can help children climb that ladder. One way is to leverage talented youngsters into coaching clinic franchises via sponsorships.

The truth is no one really cares how talented your seven-year-old is. Why should they? It will be more than a decade before they’re able to make any meaningful contribution to a professional outfit.

Pre-teenage coaching is tedious and demanding. Only masochists could presumably enjoy running after kids with attention spans shorter than their passing range.

The irony, in all seriousness, is that the age range seven to 13 is the most crucial for the development of any potential player. That’s when the building blocks of skill and technique are hammered into their foundation.

“If you listen to all the big Brazilians, all of them grew up playing street football — Futebol de Salão — or futsal, which is the same thing really, just evolved for TV,” says Bryan Cassel, coach and owner of the Kyalami and Balfour Park SuperSport United Soccer Schools.

“They’ve all grown up playing in tight spaces. None of them played on grass when they were younger. The reason their feet are as quick as they are and their decision-making so good is there’s no time in here.”

It’s these schools, of which there are more than 20 branches across the country, that provide an interesting solution to equipping South Africa’s youngsters with a better football bedrock.

Formerly called the Brazilian Soccer Schools, before SuperSport United gave its branding and support to the initiative, the schools are basically franchises.

You can even go on to the website now and enquire about owning one. Sort of like a KFC. Except here you teach boys and girls how to play football, specifically, those aged four to 16 — although it’s unlikely you will be enrolled after you turn 14 because you’re already probably set in your ways. That’s those icky years we spoke of.

Because it’s a business, the school can afford to employ full-time coaches who can theoretically give the children undivided attention year-round.

“In order for us to make the biggest impact we can on South African soccer we need to have a sustainable business model that is self-funded,” says Cassel. “This model works; it’s been going for seven years and there are kids who pay and kids who are sponsored. It is a business, but you’re not going to retire on a business like this. You make a fair living but you give back a lot.”

Until recently, the model was to sponsor one child for every four who paid. But Cassel says between the two schools he’s involved in about 70 players are sponsored, which means the ratio has changed for the better.

With training running from the early afternoon to the evening every day across almost 10 pitches, just Cassel’s two facilities alone have the potential to register a few hundred eager pupils.

Given that the strategy revolves around what is essentially five-a-side football, pitches are easier to set up. Balfour Park’s is on the roof of a shopping mall, for instance, making use of a section of a parking lot that would otherwise be wasted space.

“Three-quarters of a session every individual has a ball. And everyone works at their pace,” Marihanda Trudgeon, the co-owner of the two schools, says. “Everyone is pushing to do whatever we taught them better than they did last time. So you can have children of different abilities training together and without competing against each other. I think that’s the major difference between club training and ours — we really focus on every individual regardless of skill.”

Cassel adds: “The way the head of our organisation, Nick Aresi, describes it is we teach them to use the instruments so that they can go play in an orchestra. Their body is their instrument and we teach them how to use it properly.”

These are clearly well-thought-out sales pitches — as businesses are wont to do — but it’s hard to argue with the logic. Like so many parts of one of the world’s most unequal cities, the Highlands North area is an intersection of two different worlds: the densely populated Alexandra on one side and affluent suburbs such as Sandringham on the other.

If the richer kids, who arrive with their stereotypical soccer moms, can help foot the bill for those who can barely afford transport money, who’s arguing?