School soccer shocker

2014-01-24 00:00

JETHREN Barr was a pupil at KwaZulu-Natal’s best-resourced soccer school — and still he was forced to leave school to have any chance of becoming a world-class football player.

Yesterday, following national dismay at South Africa’s professional soccer standards, the outgoing head coach at Westville Boys’ High, Steve Bezuidenhout, told The Witness that the province’s well-resourced schools “seem to offer pathways to professional careers, but really they don’t — we need radical change if we want to compete”.

Now a reserve player for Bidvest Wits, 18-year-old Barr said he had been compelled to leave Westville in Grade 10 and “struggle through home-schooling” because schools offered only eight weeks of soccer per year, limited coaching “and we sometimes played on fields which weren’t even marked”.

“Soccer at schools is shocking — there are 25 boys here [at Wits Academy] who left school to study from home, just to have the chance to develop as footballers,” said Barr.

While South Africa’s national rugby and cricket sides, ranked second and first in the world, respectively, draw their players largely from top schools, Bezuidenhout said only a couple of members of the country’s entire national squad had been “developed” at school level. Bezuidenhout is now a soccer coach at the Sharks Academy in Durban.

Meanwhile, Dan Haswell, head of youth development at Martizburg United, said, “Unless there is a focus on soccer at schools, and an investment in quality coaching from Safa, we are going to continue a cycle of failure.”

Experts said KwaZulu-Natal had made major recent strides in youth soccer development, including the launch of the KZN High School Football Association, new festival tournaments, and the proclamation of the elite Sports Development Centre at Hoy Park, Durban, which is to train 88 of the region’s most talented boys.

Meanwhile, Maritzburg College soccer star Bandile Shandu has blazed a new trail, leaping directly from his high school team to Maritzburg United’s senior professional side. Class-mate Ryan Moon, younger brother of Bafana Bafana star Bryce Moon, has also recently signed for the club.

But Haswell said, “These are isolated cases, where we have partnered with some schools, it’s not a Safa initiative.”

Even the Maritzburg Colts youth programme can only offer an under-19 team as its youngest side. “We’re hopeful we can find the sponsors to help us start under 17s and under-15s,” said Haswell. “Cricket and rugby kids are conditioned from a very young age, with high-performance centres, gyms, physiotherapists, even psychologists — the soccer kids are getting none of that, which is one of the reasons our players struggle overseas.”

While rugby and cricket enjoy 12 or more weeks of coaching each season, Bezuidenhout said pupils were allowed only eight weeks of soccer in the third term, with few skilled coaches and a fraction of the resources available to the “major sports”.

Twenty years after major soccer talents like Jonty Rhodes and Herschelle Gibbs were “lost” to cricket, Bezuidenhout said young soccer lovers continued to be lured away by the bursaries or school resources offered for cricket and rugby. He said new Dolphins batsman Khaya Zondo was a “magnificent soccer talent” at 14, and represented one of a number of potential PSL stars whom fans would never see on the pitch.

Bezuidenhout said a lack of quality coaching had left a mismatch between talent and fixture results at KZN schools.

Sharmin Naidoo, director of sport at Westville, said the school fielded 30 soccer teams, but admitted that coaching quality remained a major challenge.

Highlighting the impact of coaching, Naidoo said matric pupil Jesse Smit had recently made the KwaZulu-Natal under- 17 cricket team, having been in the under-14 “D” team just three years ago.

As part of a major overhaul of soccer development, Safa president Danny Jordaan has emphasised the need for a focus to be placed on developing football at grassroots level, particularly in schools. In 2012, they launched a campaign that sought to train at least 10 000 new qualified coaches each year as part of the “2020” vision, an initiative aimed at getting Bafana into the top three sides in Africa, and the top 20 in the world.

But spokesperson Dominic Chimhavi said soccer did not fall into the same bracket as cricket or rugby. “A cricket player who moves through the ranks is always owned by CSA (Cricket South Africa), but a soccer player will be owned by his club, not Safa. We cannot compare soccer, rugby and cricket.”

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