Now that the coach has been given the boot, it’s time to get rid of the rest of the dead wood

2009-10-24 00:00

NOTHING has been more contemptible over the last few days than the outpouring of scorn directed at Joel Santana and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

In both cases, the entire blame for a debacle was heaped upon outside forces, an international body, a foreign coach. In both cases, administrators and politicians diverted attention from their own crassness by taking aim at an easy target bound to inflame local passions.

Plain and simple, it was cowardly. None of the aforementioned talkers and officials has issued a mea culpa. Indeed, one truth twister has managed to praise himself. That way madness lies, and defeat.

No effort need be made to defend the sacked soccer coach. As far as Santanas are concerned, South Africa might have been better advised hiring the somewhat languid guitarist, or anyone who speaks any of the numerous languages used in this neck of the woods.

It can be left to the experts to pick holes in the selections made and tactics used by Bafana Bafana in recent months. Doubtless he was inept. Certainly, it was a poor appointment. Presumably those responsible for hiring him at huge expense have already tendered their resignations. The silence has been deafening. But then fat cats do not resign. They keep licking the milk bowl.

But Santana cannot, in the antipodean phrase, cop all the flak. Some truths cannot be avoided. If South Africa had brilliant players in its leagues, or else appearing overseas, then even the greatest fool could pick them, and for all his foibles Santana is far from that. To no small degree he failed because he did not have sufficient resources at his disposal. It takes more than a few neat passes and an occasional goal against Swallows to make a world-class soccer player. The way people talk you’d think South Africa stood at 27 in the ranking when Santana took charge, not 72.

Plainly, all is not well in South African soccer. Our household watches lots of matches from Africa and Europe on television and periodically ventures to Harry Gwala to support our home outfit. One conclusion is inescapable. While the Premier Soccer League is chock-full with fast, strong black Africans playing a direct, forceful game, the local sides seem to favour a quick, neat approach — a style Barcelona plays to perfection (but then they have the men for that job).

At present, South Africa lacks a Drogba or a Toure or anyone of that ilk — a player capable of imposing himself. Whereas Cameroon and Ivory Coast perform with restrained fury and untold aggression, our lads lack conviction, and want to walk the ball between the goalposts. When last did Bafana Bafana score a scrambled goal? Or a headed goal after a pinpoint cross?

Drogba and company can feed off scraps. Maybe players of that calibre are luring in the leagues, ready to be unleashed by a new coach. But that raises another topic. The strategy widely advocated of replacing Santana with a respected past player is risky. Nothing in the recent records of Diego Marradona and Roy Keane, to name but two, indicates that outstanding players necessarily make astute coaches. Sometimes these appointments seem more designed to appease the masses than produce results. Of course, exceptions can be found. Some men of high calibre are equally adept at playing and planning. Mostly, though, it is wise to look at the track record.

By no means, though, can South African soccer itself escape censure. Plain as day, the deadwood needs to be cleared out. Several observers have named names and a rand to a cent says their analysis is correct. Happily, the new president seems bright and sincere (and the same can be said about his cricketing counterpart).

Nothing is impossible. Ghana has shown the way forward with an extraordinarily determined display in the Under-20 World Cup final, prevailing over Brazil on penalties, despite unluckily losing a player in the 37th minute to a red card. When the decisive penalty went in, the roof almost blew off our house. Imagine the response if Ghana or Ivory Coast or Bafana advance in the World Cup! Or is South African soccer happy to give second-best to Egypt, Tunisia and other well organised continental countries?

As for poor Caster Semenya, well Carl Lewis made the most telling contribution by pointing out that the situation was created by boneheads in her own camp. Officials supposed to protect her actually fed off her. They knew her appearance at the Olympics was bound to cause a painful and profound disturbance. She was deceived by her own administrators. They took surreptitious tests and then ignored the recommendations of their own medical staff. They owe her and the sport itself an apology. Instead, they complain about the IAAF and newspapers and, as a last resort, play the race card. Carl Lewis is black and concerned.

As the wonderful president of Liberia pointed out two years ago: “Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed.” So long as incompetence is tolerated, in municipalities and sport, it will stay the same — and the people deserve better.

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