Bafana Bafana is merely two games into their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign and, already, it appears as though they may need a miracle to grace the Brazilian showpiece after failing to register a win in either of their qualifying matches.
To make matters worse, a disappointing home draw against lowly ranked Ethiopia was enough to convince SAFA (South African Football Association) that Coach Pitso Mosimane was no longer the right man to steer the national team to South America, and his successor, former assistant Steve Komphela, couldn’t do any better against plucky neighbours, Botswana, in his first game in charge.
Mosimane did make himself look like a bit of a Charlie in front of his employers when he failed to gain qualification for the 2012 edition of the AFCON (African Cup of Nations) – co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea – in bizarrely comical circumstances.
Needing a win at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit against Sierra Leone – a team they had already drawn against, away from home – to qualify as group leaders, Mosimane employed ultra-defensive tactics, believing a draw would be enough to see his side through to the continental event on goal difference, and then proceeded to celebrate wildly with his players when the game ended 0-0.
The former Supersport United coach went from hero to zero when it was announced to the South African camp that Niger had, in fact, qualified ahead of them based on the strange but longstanding regulation that the team that collects the most points against the three teams tied at the top of the table wins the group.
It was, on its own, a miracle that Mosimane survived the chop after embarrassing the whole nation with such a high profile folly.
However, anyone familiar with South African history will know that this country is not estranged to seemingly miraculous or surreal occurrences. In fact, a rough estimate would place us at an average of a miracle every other year since 1990, with our most recent feat coming in the form of the successful staging of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Much like the negative sentiments and commentary prevalent in most English newspapers relating to Poland and Ukraine as unsuitable hosts in the build-up to the Euro 2012 Championship for perceived racism reasons; Mzansi – as South Africa is colloquially known amongst the locals these days – had to weather a storm of negative coverage, mostly from the European media, about perceived problems with raging crime, inadequate infrastructure, and ineffectual skills or experience to host a tournament of the magnitude of the FIFA World Cup.
So when Bafana Bafana and Mexico kicked the tournament off on the 11th of June, 2010, to the soundtrack of almost ninety thousand Vuvuzelas (described, initially, by many foreigners as resembling the sound of an angry swarm of bees before they discovered the thrill and novelty of blowing your own plastic horn louder than the next person’s) at Soccer City, it must have been dreamlike for many onlookers that this country of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu was indeed delivering to the world the 19th edition of the FIFA extravaganza.
That none of the players or media had been attacked en route to the stadium, that the calabash hadn’t caved in on its inhabitants, and that the players and supporters were able to make it to the stadium in time for the game despite the “poor or non-existent” public transport system; was in many ways yet another Mzansi miracle.
Of course, the overwhelming organisational success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup was business as usual for many South Africans who have lived through Kepler Wessels leading an inexperienced South African cricket side out of isolation to beat hosts and defending champions, Australia, in their opening game of the 1992 ICC World Cup; the 1995 IRB World Cup and Mandela hoisting the Webb Ellis Cup wearing victorious skipper Francois Pienaar’s No.6 jersey; the all-conquering efforts of Neil Tovey’s Bafana side at the 1996 AFCON; the locally organised 1999 All-Africa Games; the Dr Ali Bacher organised 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World T20 Championship.
The point is: South Africans expect nothing but the best when competing on the world stage because they have become accustomed to achieving excellence against healthy odds in the three most popular sports in the country – football, rugby, and cricket.
The Springboks have won the IRB World Cup twice since readmission. The Proteas have faltered at the semi-final stage of the ICC Cricket World Cup on three occasions in the same period. South African football, on the other hand, has weakened at a constant rate since Bafana Bafana’s successful 1996 AFCON campaign.
There is the argument that rugby and cricket are less competitive codes than football because they are not global sports. There’s probably plenty of merit in this arguments. But, sadly, the picture doesn’t get any rosier for South African football even if you compare them to their continental or Southern African rivals.
Bafana Bafana was once ranked first on the continent, ahead of traditional superpowers Nigeria, Cameroon, and Egypt. Now the country sits 15th on the continent, nine places behind poor neighbours and current African Champions, Zambia, whose majority of players ply their trade in the South African PSL (Premier Soccer League).
In 1995, current league champions, Orlando Pirates, were crowned club champions of Africa when they beat ASEC Mimosa in the final of the CAF Champions League in Abidjan.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a talented South African Under23 side beat a star-studded Brazilian side that consisted of the likes of Ronaldinho and Edu.
Sadly, the late 90s mark an era in which South African football was at its strongest and then gradually lost its teeth and became the old man of African football.
Following the massive investments that went into local football from corporates such as ABSA Bank and SuperSport International (Pty) Ltd. in the build-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, many South Africans were hopeful that the world cup would deliver long-term positive results for South African football.
The five new stadiums would certainly improve facilities and fixture congestion problems because football would no longer be played on unsuitable rugby surfaces, the massive financial investments would filter down to youth development, and the world cup would go a long way towards enhancing the ailing football profile in South Africa it was hoped.
One glaring positive effect of the world cup has been the significant change in the demographics of South Africans attending football games. Traditionally, most white South Africans would never be found wondering anywhere near a football stadium. But things have changed in the last two years with South Africans of all races showing up at football games, especially at the FNB and Cape Town Stadiums.
Unfortunately, almost two years after Sepp Blatter gave South Africa a 9/10 rating for its organisation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and declared the country as a Plan-B for any future tournaments, the world cup stadia have become a bit of a nightmare for SAFA to manage.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago Minister of Sports, Fikile Mbalula, lamented the manner in which the stadia were becoming white elephants due to the extremely high costs associated with their usage.
Bafana Bafana continues to be a national and continental joke – certainly after the episode at the Mbombela Stadium.
An even bigger and scarier concern for South African football is the fact that there is no evidence of turning the corner anytime soon as the youth teams are in as much of a pickle as the senior team.
Amajita, as the South African U/20 side is known, was knocked out in the first round of the 2009 U/20 FIFA World Cup in Egypt and never made it to the 2011 edition in Columbia. The U/17 side, on the other hand, has never qualified for the FIFA U/17 World Cup.
All of this is happening in the face of the thriving youth systems in both South African rugby and cricket, which involve the schools and tertiary institutions.
As alarming as the signs are for South African football, SAFA doesn’t seem to have a clue how to salvage the dire situation.
Incidentally, German football went through a similar slump in the late 90s as they lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals of the 1998 FIFA World Cup and then followed this up with a dismal showing at the Euro 2000 Championship.
How did the Germans react? They overhauled their academy system and forced all teams playing in the top two tiers to implement centrally regulated academies before earning a license to play in the Bundesliga. The youngsters that were featured in the first group, in 2002, now form the nucleus of the current German team.
How does this compare to SAFA’s interventions in the same period? Bafana Bafana has gone through at least eighteen coaches in the twenty-one years since readmission. The kind of thinking that inspired the ground-breaking German intervention seems to be a far cry at SAFA House. It will be a miracle if SAFA stumbled across an idea as comprehensive as the Germans’ or something more watered down, like the English 25-man squad rule of 2010.
Like Think Football on Facebook for more updates: https://www.facebook.com/thinkingfootball