Of hope and despair in our soccer

2014-01-27 10:00

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As Bafana flatters to deceive once again, it’s time to reflect on the level of football research we do in SA, writes Joel Netshitenzhe

The dramatic exit of the national soccer team from the African Nations Championship last Sunday has caused tempers to flare among all local soccer fans. This is a reflection of the deep passion we have for the senior national team and the sport in general.

Indeed, the question needs to be posed as to whether South Africa has sufficiently reflected on the real state of soccer in the country and the measures required to realise its true potential. The fact of the matter is that, save for the Icarus moments of the mid-1990s, Bafana have often flattered to deceive.

Some pundits have advanced interesting technical analyses of the match last week and the tournament as a whole. They refer to the defensive posture of the coach. They point to that seeming lack of passion on the field.

They argue that, in the game against Nigeria, some of the pillars of the team – specifically those from Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs – were never going to give it their all, given the top-of-the-table clash between the two sides four days later.

They refer to the mind games before the match, with Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi “modestly” expressing reverence for Bafana Bafana and the South African coach, and singling out precisely some of the players from Kaizer Chiefs as the biggest threats.

Then there were the contrasting performances in the two halves.

Pundits further argued that players from Ghana and Nigeria, specifically, were going to perform in this tournament in a manner they have never shown in the build up to, or during, previous tournaments.

Many in both teams are either fringe players or newcomers to their national teams; and they still stand a chance of being selected for the World Cup later this year. While Nigeria and most other teams selected very young players for this tournament, the youngest in the Bafana squad was 24 years old.

And so, the analysis can go on.

But contained in this are profound issues that the SA Football Association (Safa), the Premier Soccer League (PSL), government and supporters of football at large need to interrogate.

If there is a vision for the future, as has been declared, what balance should be struck between that long-term trajectory and the pursuit of instant gratification? Should this tournament have been about today’s Fifa rankings and today’s epaulets for the coach and the administrators?

The truism that a long-term vision does at times require sacrificing today’s pleasures for tomorrow’s rewards needs to be internalised across the board.

In 2012, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) released a research report that looks at the state of South African soccer with emphasis on long-term development and the application of scientific approaches to the development of the game. Whereas the research confirmed some of the clichéd truths, some important new insights emerged.

Among others, the study found that most of the documented research and knowledge on South African soccer is based on research done outside the country. To build consistent international competitiveness, the role of research and development must be a strategic priority.

Another important finding relates to the lack of specialist coaching for the youth: it requires tailor-made scientific approaches. The mental and physiological make up and demands on a teenager are not the same as on a senior team player. Besides this deficit, South Africa seems to suffer from a debilitating agism.

The young players in the tournament from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria are already actively plying their trade in local leagues, and some were recalled from trials abroad. In South Africa, many young players in PSL teams are mostly twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines, with no serious reserve league to speak of.

Modern football has developed, with ever-changing, specialised needs and demands placed on supporters, players and managers, on and off the field.

For instance, a lot of work and specialisation goes into prematch, during-the-match and postmatch analytics; training; planning and management. No one aspect or department can function optimally without the input of the other.

Approaches to the game have become so nuanced that a complex of management, coaching, training, talent identification and retention; as well as scientific, nutritional, medical and psychological aspects combine to determine whether a team stays on top or not.

International comparative analysis identifies good working relations between professional leagues and football associations as an important ingredient to success.

For instance, in Germany, the football association sets standards for youth development programmes that clubs in the professional league are compelled to comply with as part of their licensing.

The consequence of this has been a marked improvement in their senior national team after a slump in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Of course, the socioeconomic profile of South Africa may not allow for some of these improvements to take place all at the same time given the funding levels and sources of income. But what South Africans cannot claim are privations that surpass those of fellow African countries that perform better.

These countries have developed their own systems that tailor the pursuit of excellence to their socioeconomic realities.

It is not that South Africa lacks a comprehensive diagnosis of the sorry state of its soccer. Nor are we short of strategies to help banish this malaise.

Incidentally, and in part because of the involvement of some Safa technical staff members in the Mistra research project, the findings and recommendations of the research were not much different from issues that have informed Safa’s latest strategies and inspired the formation of the Safa Development Agency.

These range from school sport to nutrition, medical and sports science expertise in youth development structures, a functional reserve league, and technical teams staffed by specialists in all areas demanded by the imperatives of modern football.

Arising from the Mistra research and interactions with Safa and the PSL, primary among the issues that require addressing at present are:

»?Resolving once and for all the unhealthy tension between Safa and the PSL, and ensuring that the legitimacy and authority of Safa is earned and asserted in a systematic manner, with both having a professional bureaucracy that transcends electoral cycles;

»?Implementing the variety of youth development strategies that have been identified, using the platform of school sports, the centres of excellence that Safa proposes and the development structures of the PSL teams, with clear minimum standards to which all of them should adhere;

»?Developing a network of researchers in South African universities with a specific focus on soccer, and ensuring that these researchers serve as the brains trust of Safa and the football fraternity as a whole; and

»?Mobilising society to appreciate the development strategies and the pathways to long-term success, and ensuring that expectations are tempered to this reality.

Above all, there should be appreciation that soccer is about more than just 90 minutes of the game. It is about the philosophy of human relations; it is an economic sector in its own right; and it is about psychology, medicine, as well as management and other sciences.

Above all, it has the potential not only to promote national unity and social cohesion, but can also reinforce the self-esteem that is so critical to all other national endeavours.

»?Netshitenzhe is Mistra’s executive director

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