Time for grass-roots action

2010-07-31 00:00

NOW, post the World Cup, is the time for Leslie Sedibe to stand up and be counted. The SA Football Association’s CEO won a lot of friends with his smooth, sophisticated style when he was business manager for EMI South Africa. His role as a celebrity lawyer, and his marriage to Generations star Sonia, mark Sedibe as a man who does not shy away from the limelight. He is a good speaker. Much of what he says makes sense.

This immediately sets Sedibe apart from his predecessor at Safa, Raymond Hack. Hack  hugged the shadowy corridors, avoided the limelight and thus gave the impression of shirking responsibility. He seemed to have zero passion for the job of preparing Bafana Bafana for the World Cup, and the results have only confirmed this.

Sedibe is another character. He speaks of football with love, as a fan does. Like Hack he is a lawyer. But Hack is from the greyer side of the profession, one that deals with grit, grime and crime. Sedibe is from a music industry background, and there couldn’t be too many more colourful industries. He understands entertainment, so by extension he must have some understanding of football. Because apart from winning, being competitive and doing the nation proud, in this country and on this continent, expression is of as much, if not even more, value than the result.

Sedibe is young. He will make mistakes. But he has spirit, and that immediately is an improvement from the previous Safa regime. He engages the media rather than hiding from them. He’s transparent rather than shady. His handling of the Benni McCarthy affair ahead of the World Cup was an example.

The press had somewhat unfairly taken comments from Bafana fitness trainer Francisco Gonzalez that McCarthy was nowhere near fit, with more than month to go, to be part of a World Cup squad, and they latched onto the West Ham striker’s weight. In characteristic fashion, McCarthy snubbed his media interview the following day.

What was not in character was the striker turning out the day after that to face the press and eat humble pie (rather than burgers, for once), proclaim himself a proud South African, and go so far as to say Bafana did not need him at the World Cup.

It was slick handling of the media by Sedibe, and far removed from the previous regime’s favoured tactic of going into hiding at the slightest sign of criticism or controversy.

At a press conference after the World Cup, Sedibe showed his inexperience at dealing with the treacherous SA football media. Safa had called a briefing at which everyone expected Pitso Mosimane to be announced as coach. Instead, the association announced practically nothing. Mosimane was the only candidate, but he would have to be reviewed by a technical committee comprised mostly of geriatrics and has-beens.

Safa’s intentions were in the right place — they wanted to show they were doing something. But it was a poorly handled briefing that backfired as a PR move.

Safa president Kirsten Nematandani, whatever his credentials as an administrator might be, is just not the speaker Sedibe is. He began with an overly technical, boardroom-speak statement that got journalists’ backs up, and from there the conference degenerated into a free-for-all, take-your-potshot-at-the-Safa-administrator session. Nematandani and Sedibe might have learnt something from the experience.

The language coming from the new administration is refreshing given the stony silence of the old regime. Talk of reviving schools football is welcome. But this goes beyond national competitions, and extends to Safa’s 52 regions.

There is no organised, competitive football in many cities across the country like Pietermaritzburg. If football is in danger of becoming a middle-class game, the best way to counter this is to pour money into townships, into poorer schools — the traditional sources of talent in South Africa, channels that have stagnated and become clogged in the post-apartheid era.

The job of selecting the new Bafana Bafana coach has been done. The task of running the senior national team is not overly difficult. It involves giving Mosimane all the backing possible, from training camps to negotiating with clubs to release players.

The overseas-based players need to be handled with greater care than the previous administration. Too often Safa were responsible for calling players back for meaningless friendlies and not handling situations better where players’ places in their European clubs were at stake.

With the threat of a battle looming from Irvin Khoza’s camp, the possibility of a return to the previous regime, under whom Bafana fell from being an African power to a non-entity, looms. All the more reason for action from the current ruling clique where it matters most.

Implementing grass-roots structures and a centralised development plan has never been more important. With these steps Nematandani and Sedibe could oversee the progression of South Africa, which has financial resources and an infrastructure in facilities that other African countries can only dream of, to becoming a footballing force on the continent again.

Safa has been avoiding the subject of how it will spend its estimated R1 billion windfall from the World Cup. The association has earmarked the money for long-term spending rather than near-term, saying sponsorships need to cover development.

But the examples of the U.S. and South Korea, whose footballing success has continued long after hosting the 1994 and 2002 tournaments, thanks to ploughing the funds gained back into football, suggest that Safa should consider making an investment soon that could be the watershed for returning South African football to its rightful place.

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