The Lost Bafana

2015-10-16 08:34

Stating the obvious about SA football.

Before one fixes a problem, first one needs to decipher the exact nature of that problem. After Sports minister Fikile Mbalula said the Springboks were in danger of becoming losers, I got to thinking about where Bafana Bafana fall on that barometer. More than that, the loss to Japan was felt on a deeper level in SA than Bafana’s loss to Mauritania (of course because it’s a WC, and a game we should never have lost)… in fact, with the lack of consistency on the soccer field, it almost wasn’t surprising, despite the fact that they fought back well from a goal down and with 10 men…

Bear with me here for a moment; the Springboks of ’95 were not the most talented group of players we’ve ever produced, not by a long shot (not before or since) and they were perhaps the 5th best team (on paper) at that tournament… on the flip side, the ’96 Bafana Bafana team, were very talented (just a bit naïve on the world stage and lacked a bit of structure)… Raw talent and SA ‘gees’ won us the trophy in ’96 (with home ground advantage, plus Madiba magic), but going back to the Springboks of ’95, I’m sure you’d agree that what won us the World Cup was pure heart, sweat and grit (because we had no true right to win that tournament). Another hallmark was that the Springboks had no discernible ‘stars’ in the team – sure we had good players, but they weren’t “names”, like Campese, Lomu, Blanco, Fitzpatrick et al. but as history and the would-be script would have it, it was meant to be thus, because the ’95 RWC triumph was about more than individuals, it was about the collective, about a team, a nation etc. And so, the Springboks identity was immortalized in this sense, for what it stood for (the new meaning, an adopted meaning even). And one gets the sense that even through the darkest years (racism, on field hooliganism, Kamp Staaldraad etc.), the pride in the national jersey was preserved and then rekindled and reinforced, specifically from 2007 onwards. Yes transformation is still a big issue, but the new legacy in the professional era has been forged by world class talent. To lend some more perspective: the vast majority of players currently making up the national squad were under 10 years old when apartheid ended…

The loss to Japan felt like an insult to that legacy though, not just because it was Japan, but also due to the manner in which we played, or didn’t play… Shouldn’t wearing the national jersey be motivation enough (at a WC no less)? Thankfully that shock has been exactly that, a shock to the system to ignite the spark of redemption… But that aside, what sort of tonic does Bafana Bafana need to jolt them into action?

The truth is that there seems to be noticeable lack of identity (again) on the football pitch. In the build up to 2010 it took a Brazilian to rediscover what SA soccer is really about, but its more than just a style of play; what they lack is a team culture.

In ’96 you had a generation (Tovey, Radebe, Tinkler, Bartlett, Khumalo) that were all leaders, plus they made up the spine of the national team… but what came next? The next generation had several players (Mokoena, Fortune, McCarthy) and thereafter fewer still (Khune, Pienaar)… so the spine of the team got weaker, not helped by inconsistency in selections and coaching. In a Rugby context, the spine is usually marked through numbers 2, 4 (or 5), 8, 9, 10 & 15. You can compensate with world class players in other positions, but you build around these key central positions. Going back to football though, WC Championship winning coach, Germany’s Joachim Loew is a staunch believer in the teams spine – Goalkeeper, central defenders, central defensive and offensive midfielders, and a top striker. Currently the Bafana Bafana spine is very young as Mashaba is rebuilding…

- And what of this so-called team culture?

What do I mean by it? Well, as with any family, it operates best when there’s a recognized leader, the head, to go with a recognized path (direction), and a good mind to figure out how to plot our way there (coach)… and in this environment, to have good “lieutenants” (a brain’s trust to use the Jake White/John Smit era jargon) to guide the start of the journey. Thus whenever a new young player rises to prominence, he forms part of a greater whole, a body… the leaders of the team are not just ambassadors for the country, but “big brother’s” in the national setup to guide the younger guys with their experience (and to nurture them to help the coach get the best out of them… and the best way to do that is to show by example, both on and off the field, in their play, conduct and attitude). It supposedly “goes without saying”, but somehow we need to keep reiterating it. During this Rugby World Cup, we’ve often heard recently that the squad of players are “a family”, galvanized further with the post-Japan pressure week (although their truest test will be against Wales).

It’s in this environment that you construct a good team atmosphere and ‘culture’… this is what seems part and parcel of being a Springbok (even if the latest squad needed some reminding and soul searching; the crucial thing is that they had something to fall back on, beyond just a style of play and a “back to basics” approach, they have wiser heads in the ranks).

With Bafana Bafana, this is seriously lacking. Every new coach tries to build something like it, but it needs to be a culture that transcends personnel… Mashaba has tried to rekindle something, but the leaders of the team are few, and we only have one player playing consistent top flight football abroad (Serero). I suppose we can take some comfort in the fact that the class of ’96 were all home grown… so we’re having to start all over again.

I see the current squad of Shakes Mashaba and I see a lot of young talent, which is good, but there is no team culture with an established spine, call it a hierarchy. I know that last word may come with various connotations, but this is why a captain is chosen, and a vice etc… but these roles change too often, and the players themselves are guilty of perhaps not respecting it enough (or the jersey they wear). There’s no consistency in performance because there’s been inconsistency in selection, and not enough responsibility placed on the shoulders of the chosen leaders. A demonstration of this was our “promising” performances at AFCON that ultimately lacked composure and failing to put together a full 90 min effort.

With a good team culture and recognized identity, and a true idea of what it means to play for their country, you wouldn’t have the nonsense of players not pitching up for a national team call-up… or at least it would be a very rare occurrence, but lately it just seems (perhaps permeated by the football mentality) that the prima-donna attitude is ever present to rear its glamorous head at any moment.

Of course the players themselves are not wholly to blame for this. SAFA’s hands are filthy, after their first lick of success they just made one bad decision after another. I’m not saying SARU’s hand’s are glistening, but we’re still dealing with the after effects of apartheid, where the sporting structures of rugby were preserved and the football structures (grassroots) were neglected. Both sides have failed in many regards, but with rugby, at least something still seems to be working, that the Scottish assistant coach said prior to the match with the Springboks, that it seems like we pull our locks off a conveyor belt, with 3 top quality world class young locks making an impact… So as long as SARU keeps ploughing funds and energy into transformation and grassroots rugby development, they will only be widening and enriching the pool of talent already available; but with Bafana Bafana, the talent pool seems to have regressed with mismanagement, corruption and neglect etc. (the closing and recent re-opening of the School of Excellence a case in point).

Sadly I don’t know when the national team, the players, coaches, SAFA etc. will come to realize that its more than just 11 players, or 90 min, or a goal, or taking our chances… we can talk about culture, about heart, identity, grit, soul etc… but I just don’t know if or when they will truly “get it”. The recent victory over Costa Rica drew high praise from opposition goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but he only stated what we as a nation already know; we possess a supremely talent bunch of soccer players… that we are NOT at the pinnacle of World Football (or just African football), is an indictment of all that’s been said here.

{By the way; I haven’t mentioned the Proteas in all this, but perhaps that’s a debacle for another day.}

Our talented sportsmen and women are just that, men and women, people… we are all equal, and though it’s a cliché it still resonates, that when we stand together believing in something greater than ourselves, we can truly achieve great things. And though trophies are only small temporal things, they are constant reminders of the great potential we possess when we dip into the purest parts of our being.

Yes no one is perfect and all this often only manifests itself as “good feelings” during usually trying times (of which there are many in our young nation), but that’s part of life, to take the good with the bad and as best we can, pile as much as we can into the good column, to aspire, to strive to be the best that we can be…

And when our athletes take the field, we acknowledge that they are the best of us, the best we can offer… and oddly enough, sometimes they don’t even believe it (with all the expectation and pressure), they are only human after all, and sometimes they may not be at their best but we can rest assured because once again, its about more than the individual. It’s typified by the attitudes of several players over the years – Bryan Habana in the 2011 WC QF exit against AUS, he was battered and took some heavy hits, but Justin Marshall said of him during the game “even though he is nowhere near 100%, he is giving 100%"... the same could be said of Juan Smith in 2010 against the All Blacks at Soccer City (NZ won) – he hadn’t played a lot of rugby and was not 100% fit, but his performance was a standout, one the All Blacks credited “the moment he came off the field, the game changed”. Yes these are two random examples out of many in recent memory, but this is only a reflection of the country itself, which is not in the best state that it can be (never was, and never will reach that proverbial state), but we can make the world stand up and notice us for the right reasons.

Perhaps indicative of the differences in attitudes across our main sporting codes, is pressure… Bafana Bafana have never been under the same kind of pressure that the Springboks have been under… of course they’ve had the benefit of healthy structures to support that pressure, but it was born from a tough time in the country’s history, charged with healing some deep divisions (and through public condemnation of being a previously advantaged sport)… but moving into the future, although many divisions still exist, its time the national football team starts to shoulder some of the burden as well, to make football more of a national sport. We have really talented footballers, but nurturing and managing our talent is where SAFA have been woefully offside.

I titled this piece ‘The Lost Bafana’, with the hopes that the national football team can rediscover their place in the national identity, almost like the prodigal son, to return and awaken to its true potential.

We can aspire and do our utmost,

To deliver those glimmers of hope to look past our past and present pain and insecurities,

Even If it’s just for a moment.

Though we are not the best we can be, we can still deliver the best, we can give the best we’ve got… and when we do, we know for a fact that we are second to none.


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