Why the ball won't deflate

2008-10-10 15:02
They say it's instructive to look back in order to look forward. And if you do that, you could not be blamed for deducing that our sport was arguably more sprightly 10 years ago than it is now.

Bafana Bafana were ranked around 25th in the world, and in February 1998 had made a second successive appearance in the African Nations Cup final - even if this time, in Burkina Faso, they eventually surrendered the trophy they'd won in 1996 to Egypt.

Compare that to now, with the national side ranked a desperate 85th, Benni McCarthy still the likeliest source of goals despite being several much-publicised kilograms heavier and years older, and Bafana not even going to the 2010 tournament in Angola, thanks to their own ineptitude.

On the rugby field, the Springboks were in the midst of a record-breaking run under Nick Mallett's charismatic charge: as is the case now, the country held the World Cup, but they had also just won a maiden Tri-Nations crown - the Boks ended bottom in 2008, despite some fits of brilliance.

The national cricket team was, arguably, in roughly similar territory to where it is at present: extremely competitive and respected on the world stage, if not quite able, frustratingly, to achieve mastery over top-of-podium Australia.

South Africa, generally, also had more world headline-grabbing individual sportspeople then than it does now.

Ernie Els was far more likely to nudge or even clutch "World No 1" golf status a decade or so back than today's fitful, seemingly fast-declining competitor is, while a raft of promising South African youngsters today have not - Trevor Immelman at the 2008 Masters glowingly apart - taken the next step up yet to Major silverware.

Our anonymity on the global tennis stage, meanwhile, remains a deep concern; there is no Wayne Ferreira to occasionally threaten Grand Slam semi-final appearances and probably not even one in the proverbial snail post.

South Africa's Olympic aspirations have gone indisputably backwards, too, even if the Paralympics performers often act as a rescue tonic of sorts and Natalie du Toit serves as an inspirational ambassador across both Games.

Where today we sport a flimsy lone silver medal from the latest main-event Olympics, at least in 1998 memories of Atlanta two years previously were rather sweeter: three golds (two to Penny Heyns), a silver and a bronze.

South Africa's Beijing flop of 2008 provided certain, salient lessons for London 2012 and beyond: just one was that stronger characters are needed in management to ensure Team SA harmony and unity.

It was almost impossible not to deduce that South Africa's Beijing Olympics leadership was largely in the hands of rather charmless, holier-than-thou commissars whose self-interest was proved in their tawdry clamour for the best seats on the aircraft out of Johannesburg.

But there was also widespread local realisation that, especially in a climate in which China went to quite extraordinary lengths to put one over fellow superpower the US in terms of sporting bragging rights, South Africa has pressing broader societal needs which eclipse any obscene, necessarily rand-guzzling crusade for truly significant Olympic glory in the near future.

There is one very good reason to suggest we will get our next 10 years in sport off to a flyer: an unprecedented run, over the next two years, of outstandingly attractive events on these shores - not only will they keep South Africa very much in the global spotlight, but they are bound to inspire, too, legions of youngsters domestically into wanting to "make it" themselves at the codes concerned.

The end of the 2008/09 cricketing summer sees Australia visit (February to April) for three Tests and the customary, money-spinning welter of ODIs and Twenty20 internationals, while early winter sees the first visit in 12 years of the British and Irish Lions rugby team, accompanied by tens of thousands of generally good-humoured and cash-flush supporters.

In these days of rather soulless, fly-in-and-fly-out internationals, there is a terrific appetite building for this genuine "tour", and the Springboks' opportunity to avenge a 1997 series they really shouldn't have lost.

British Isles sports fans will descend again in robust numbers as a love-'em-or-loathe-'em "Barmy Army" at the end of 2009, when England play another full cricket series here.

And both 2009 and 2010 are red-letter years like no other for South African soccer: first for the trial-run Confederations Cup tournament, featuring the top international teams from every continent plus the host nation, and then the country's biggest sporting challenge by a country mile: World Cup 2010.

Of course conjecture has been rife about the pace - more pertinently perceived lack of it - of preparation, as well as related issues like chronic budgetary over-runs, local committee hiccups and infrastructural and ubiquitous crime concerns.

In truth, some of them are the product of an overblown sense of self-doubt in our still-virgin democracy; even the uber-precise German nation had its wobbles in the lead-up to the 2006 equivalent.

The passion for soccer runs so deep in our country that this, alone, ought to amount to a tidal surge that puts paid to any other ripples or even sea-swells of drawback come the vast event.

Besides, what are the chances of Brazil 2014 looming large and people saying: "Hmm, not sure it will live up to 2010 in South Africa ...? Not completely out of the question, I submit.

Indeed, I have an optimistic theory (though many would brand it an eccentricity-inducing fever) that Bafana Bafana have hit rock-bottom at the right time, two years out from 2010, and may even be ready not to disgrace - as opposed, perhaps, to actually excel - come the humungous kick-off.

There are no compelling long-range signs that South African rugby or cricket, 10 years hence, will be any less combative globally than they are at present. The country will always be a powerful presence in southern hemisphere rugby affairs, while Cricket South Africa has not been slow to signal its intentions to milk the burgeoning multinational Twenty20 cash cow.

Transformation continues apace and generally harmoniously in cricket - look at a few SuperSport Series XIs or some line-ups in the next-tier SAA Provincial Challenge for confirmation that a genuinely more representative pool of talent is taking very solid root now - even if rugby lags a little further behind in some respects.

Two black starting players only in the Lions team which secured its Currie Cup 2008 semi-final status at Newlands recently? That's no change from some five years ago, isn't it?

Overall, I'd hazard a guess that perfectly normal service will apply to South African sport in 2018: when our teams or individuals are excitedly touted for triumph, they will make a monumental pig's ear of things, and when all seems lost or wretchedly tumultuous they will surprise themselves (and us) periodically with the stealth of their ascent from the bowels.

Because we're South Africans, and don't we know it.

The ball? No, it will have bounced oddly and tempestuously at times but it won't have gone pap by 2018 ...

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AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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