/ 4 November 2022

Is foreign investment the missing link in South Africa’s football success?

Laligaacademy Ih7
Evaton’s Celta Academy has been given a huge boost with the support of LaLiga club RC Celta and Pereira Ocean Products, who have joined forces to help develop the Sebokeng Football Academy. Photo: Supplied

Spanish La Liga club Celta Vigo has set up an academy in Evaton, a township south of Johannesburg, promising to contribute to the upliftment of South Africa’s football. 

The academy’s management can give no assurances of a football career for the youngsters once they complete school, but the foreign investment has been welcomed by a country that has struggled to produce world-class talent in recent years.

Marcos Pelegrin, La Liga Southern Africa managing director, said the academy would work with 200 young boys and girls between the ages of six and 17, as well as local coaches, to equip them with skills from some of the league’s well-known coaches. 

When asked why the academy was launched in South Africa, Pelegrin said it was a “no-brainer”, given the country’s passion for football. 

“The only thing we can guarantee our players is that we will take care of them. We want to teach them to grow as individuals and not [only] as footballers … because maybe one percent of them would make it to the professional stage, but that is not the end. The end goal is to grow good people who are educated through the volumes of football.” 

Many of the country’s football fans were first introduced to Celta Vigo after Benni McCarthy, the former Bafana Bafana star and current first-team coach at Manchester United, signed for the club in 1999. He netted 10 times across 66 appearances during his stint in Spain’s northwest.

McCarthy earned his first international cap the year after South Africa’s historic 1996 Africa Cup of Nations win. That team, and its iterations over the next decade, was characterised by the success its players found overseas. 

Among the notables, Lucas Radebe would become a cult hero and captain at the Premier League’s Leeds United. Quinton Fortune would spend seven years at rivals Manchester United. Soon after Steven Pienaar would join them in Europe and become one of the globe’s most talked about talents.

But more recently the moves abroad have dried up in both quantity and prestige. A reality epitomised by Bafana ace Percy Tau’s celebrated but ultimately doomed transfer to Brighton and Hove Albion. This has coincided with the national side’s poor recent record — which has seen them fail to qualify for a World Cup since 2002.

The problem, many believe, lies at grassroots level. 

For this reason, the Spanish league has been lauded for investing in the country. Former Bafana goalkeeper and Supersport United coach Andre Arendse said foreign football investment was a good idea. It provided financial support for South Africa’s football industry as well as an exchange of expertise from coaches, he said. 

Arendse added that foreign football academy investments did not provide a guarantee of a career for its players but instead offered an opportunity for raw talent to be nurtured. “The real challenge is to invest in the time of the young people.The football market from a European perspective has so much to give and in order to grow that pipeline, we need to develop school systems by sending more coaches into the schools.”

Former Kaizer Chiefs assistant coach Farouk Khan also weighed in on the benefits of football foreign investments, describing it as the “tip of the iceberg”. He said the South African football industry was yet to be commercialised and that this would only be achieved at a school level.  

“When I was in school we were forced to partake in physical sport … [Now] basic sporting skills many youngsters are only taught at the age of 14 when they reach academy level.”

Khan viewed the launch of the La Liga academy as a quick fix to the football backlog in the country and was hopeful that the return on investment would grow the league locally and give the youth an opportunity to enhance their skills and careers.

The Mail & Guardian attended the league’s first friendly match, which kicked off about a week ago at St Stithians College in Sandton. The atmosphere on and off the field was one of excitement and anticipation of what could be achieved via the academy. 

Themba Dlamini, chairperson of Celta Vigo academy, who has worked closely with young footballers since 2001, said part of the agreement was to take some of the players to Celta Vigo in Spain.  

Dlamini added that the partnership would assist him in the fight to keep the children off the streets away from drugs and gangsterism, allowing them to put their time and energy into something they love and which could possibly give them the opportunity of a football career beyond Africa’s borders.
“Coaching the young ones is my life and it makes me who I am. This partnership is a dream come true. The kids called me the night before asking if they could arrive three hours earlier to train. We are hopeful that this will grow beyond this level,” said Dlamini.