SA’s wasted young talent

2010-04-03 00:00

DRIVE through the Transkei, where this reporter is currently on a week’s leave, at around 5 pm. It’s a sight that could make a striking photo-essay or coffee-table picture book. In the perfect light that silhouettes pink and aqua-blue houses on bumpy, lopsided fields with knee-length grass surrounded by rolling, windswept hills, a ritual takes place that matches and complements the surrounding panorama.

Young boys, sometimes joined by older men, in colourful shirts or football jerseys of European teams, Kaizer Chiefs or the now-defunct Umtata Bush Bucks (who used to strike fear into visiting teams’ hearts at the old Independence Stadium in Mthata), play vibrant, energetic football. Often they are surrounded by what appears to be all the residents of the local village or hamlet, out to watch the game.

On beaches, youngsters aged from three to 15 play football all day. They use balls left behind by holiday-makers or rolled-up socks or plastic packets. They have skill that bewilders the mind. Don’t tell me this is not a football country. Perhaps in the townships and the big cities, where football fields that were packed every afternoon in the 1970s and 1980s now stand almost empty, replaced by malls and Playstation 3, the game has lost some of its sizzle.

Bafana Bafana games attracted 5 000 people, or even 20 000 in the cavernous Soccer City before it closed for renovations. In Gauteng, Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns, with their snappy marketing and brand management that target the buppie and BEE market, remain attractions. But in the rural areas, football remains the heart and soul of the land.

The scenes in the Transkei are echoed in rural areas throughout South Africa, in the Free State, North West, Mpumalanga, the Drakensberg, Msunduzi, northern Natal, the KZN south coast and Venda. Where there is a cow-patch field and a ball, there are guaranteed to be youngsters playing a game near sunset. While the townships, much like the favelas in Brazil, remain the source of most of South Africa’s footballing talent, so much more exists in the rural areas that is not being tapped into. And while football in townships has stagnated since the end of apartheid and the consequent growth of alternative sources of entertainment or other leisure pursuits, the lack of co-ordinated identification structures outside the townships, in the rural areas, and of any organised football there, must surely see the large majority of its talent go unnoticed.

The examples of two current Pietermaritzburg-linked football figures illustrate this. Lamontville Golden Arrows coach Manqoba Mngqithi rose to become a PSL coach via being an assistant at Maritzburg City, coaching the Durban Varsity team in the lower leagues, putting himself through the right courses and certificates, then being given a chance to progress from Khabo Zondo’s assistant to the senior coach at Arrows by late chairman Rocky Madlala. Mngqithi grew up in Msunduzi and feels he could have made a handy professional player had there been organised football in the region to progress from.

Orlando Pirates’ young striker, Siphelele Mthembu, told of the difficulties of becoming a professional footballer from Melmoth on the north coast, where there was alcohol to be avoided and a family to support. He was spotted in a regional tournament by Maritzburg City coach Reggie Shelembe and brought to Pietermaritzburg before being snapped up by Pirates. Mthembu is one of the lucky few.

The work Shelembe does scouring for talent in rural areas is admirable. But where is the co-ordinated development plan that could utilise the skills of men like Shelembe, Maritzburg Varsity sports head Thabo Dladla, Maritzburg United development coach Katz Naidoo, AmaZulu youth head Joel Faya and the scouts responsible for the production line at Arrows to scour for talent throughout KZN, to be reaped, cultivated and harvested?

The SA Football Association under the previous administration of Raymond Hack, Molefi Olifant and Irvin Khoza was inefficient at the top, and at grassroots level this has transferred to an apple that is rotten from its skin to its core. At regional Safa level, with some exceptions, the emphasis seems to be on squabbling and petty personal politics rather than organising football. New Safa president Kirsten Nematandani, current chief executive Leslie Sedibe and the future CEO after the World Cup, Danny Jordaan, face a tremendous challenge reversing this trend.

What happens to probably much more than 90% of those rough diamonds kicking the ball with such consummate skill on the fields outside Lusikisiki, Bizana, Mt Frere, Idutywa, Thohoyandou, Clarens, Newcastle and Vryheid? By the time they are 18, some have managed to raise the funds to try out at trials for PSL or lower league pro and semi-pro teams. There they have two or three days to impress among hundreds of other aspirant youngsters. Even the greatest talents can get lost in this morass. Some, very few, are spotted and taken on. Others aren’t, and must return home empty-handed to families who need food put on the table.

They might try a few more times. They might succeed. Most don’t. And by 20 most give up on their dream and face reality.

It’s too late now for 2010, but for the 2014 World Cup it’s time Safa began to address this situation.

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