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5 ways in which South African football can be improved

For a number of years, we continue to ponder at the satisfactory (or below average) progress of our South African football team, also known as Bafana Bafana.

With an influx of talented and also skilful soccer players from all shores and provinces of South Africa, why can’t South Africa compete at the top level with other nations, just like other sporting codes do (eg: cricket and rugby)?

As you might be aware, the dynamics are different, both from an administrative and cultural level.

Some even allude to the fact that South African football is in a crisis and others mention that South African football is getting worse.

Instead of just pointing out the problems, in no way are there documented scientific insights in layman terms on HOW South African football can be improved. The aim of this article is to provide a brief analysis of South African football together with outlining some imperative factors promoting or hindering the growth of South African soccer.

Analysis

  1. The pacing (or culture of playing) of South African soccer is quicker compared to other countries. Is this due to players being naturally anxious or nervous when receiving the ball? More time with the ball would allow increased ball possession and subsequently turn into a better throughput rate of scoring goals.
  2. Ball control is seldom seen with South African soccer. Compared to the English Premier League, most teams have prolific ball control and try their best to maintain the possession of the ball, while continuing being in search of chances or adopting their strategies for scoring goals. Ball control can’t be started at the elite level; It starts from grassroots levels. However, teams, particularly at the Premier Soccer League (PSL) level, should practice more ball control under pressure. Perhaps this is done during training, but not sufficiently enough as it is minimally translated into matches.
  3. There is also a paucity of players utilizing the wings at the elite level. Depending on teams’ formations, this is often adopted for increased space. Many times, when we watch South African soccer, there is limited space among players within a square meter. The best of teams manoeuvre the ball in a way where there is less time spent on the ball but also increasing their space. As such, depth perception and spatial awareness skills would need to be vastly improved across all levels of soccer in South Africa.
  4. Players also take more chances of taking shots at goal outside of the 18-yard area. Unfortunately, many times, these shots are also not on goal target. The influence of selfishness comes into play here and relying on chance. Most of the time, this would be a one in 20th chance as compared to an average of one in 10th chance in European playing countries. The willingness to sacrifice the “chance” of scoring a goal over passing it to a teammate who would have a better chance of scoring or would be able to create a better, calculated chance, for the subsequent player, should be done.
  5. The number of passes lobbied from the centre line is also mostly inaccurate, thereby losing possession of the ball. “Come with the ball” unless there is a clear counter attack or if the goal-keeper from the opposition is off his goal line.

Climate

I am not trying to make many comparisons to European football. However, Europe and the United Kingdom (UK) have colder weather compared to South Africa. Their season ranges between the months of August and May, whereas minimal (or no) football is being played in their warmer months – June and July.

In South Africa, football is played during similar time periods and throughout the winter. However, on some winter days, it is still relatively warm. At present (January 2018), there is scorching heat in most parts of South Africa and depending on the time of day, players are needing to be adequately hydrated and prepared for the conditions.

Does Europe and the UK have an advantage of climate over South Africa? Or can we say that all players growing up in their respective country (besides players who are also contracted to other countries besides their native countries) have adapted to the climate and therefore the climate is not an issue? However, talented and successful football nations in South America such as Brazil and Argentina experience the similar climate to South Africa yet there are able to still to compete at the highest level and beat most football countries.

From this brief comparison, we can say that climate is not a hindering factor to the success of South African football. However, hydration guidelines should be adequately and continuously managed.

Socio-economic challenges

Every country experiences a number of challenges (political, financial, equity of access, etc). The socio-economic crisis in South African football (stemmed mainly from poverty and financial challenges), is a probable, hindering factor towards the growth of South African football.

Question is: why are other sporting codes successful or fairly successful than football? This would be a debate for another time, but to put it simply, is there an imbalance of funds being allocated to various sporting codes in South Africa, even though football is among the top three played and watched.

Football schools

In most European countries, there are football schools. This is where children are not only educated at school but they are also taught strategic and tactical skills in football from a young age. They are able to grow up learning the core skills of football, both from a theoretical and practical perspective.

SOTON academy 2

In South Africa, mostly practical approaches (in the form of training mainly) is conducted. A probable reason for why a football school system cannot be adopted in South Africa at the grassroots levels is mainly due to the poverty crisis that exists in South Africa. Most of the semi-professional to elite players come from rural or underprivileged areas, and it is, therefore, challenging for them to play football full-time from an early age as survival instincts or other basic needs is a priority. Another reason is that South Africa continuously promotes the importance of education (and it should be), which is vital for their future if football does not materialise.

In addition, if this accessibility or opportunity is provided, South African children would love it and their parents/guarantors would be excited. Does the South African Football Association have the budget to integrate such a system into their existing development programme? I don’t think so. Perhaps something like this should be incorporated in the current development and youth structures of South African football. This would certainly attenuate the growth of South African football for years to come.

Team staffing

Messi Podolski Boateng bench 2010

Due to the limited funds currently available in South African football (when compared to other successful football nations), there is also a paucity of staffing among the semi-professional and professional teams. Usually, there would be the head coach/manager, assistant coach(es), medical doctor, physiotherapist, fitness trainer and perhaps a social media liaison and bodyguard(s).

With the cultural diversity that already exists in South Africa, social workers are rarely employed or appointed to work with sports teams. This would help in alleviating any barriers that may exist between teammates or when playing against other opposition teams.

This leads to the psychology of a player. How many teams have sports psychologists working with players? They can greatly assist players in dealing with pressure, motivation, readiness for matches, their overall mental health and external challenges they are experiencing in their lives. This will work towards enhancing the players and team’s self-belief and developing emotional intelligence.

Furthermore, performance analysts are widely used in overseas sports and teams have been increasingly posting vacancies for such professionals as the value they add is profound. South African sport is yet to learn on the importance and value of performance (not technical) analysts and professional alike.

Lastly, the staffing of South African football teams should also make use of overseas coaches or advisors to embrace a new culture into the team(s). This will allow for new tactical skills and match preparations to be achieved, with the amalgamation of observing and then working with various players’ talents as a core functional unit.

Culture of football in South Africa

Some time ago, in Argentina, football was (and still is) a religion and Diego Maradona was their God. This was also the case for Pele, David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, etc.

Similarly, in India, if cricket was a religion, Sachin Tendulkar would be their God.

The culture and love of football in most overseas countries are extraordinary.

The love for the sport in South Africa, particularly for football, cricket and rugby, is massive. However, not as heightened compared to other countries.

On a player level, the levels of participation among the youth across all sporting codes are starting to decline. Is technological hobbies, among others, a cause for this?

On a support level, the number of fans and spectators going to the matches are only close to their maximum for international games. However, for the South African sport at the domestic league level, the number of fans attending are either minute or average, aside from maybe Kaizer Chiefs against Orlando Pirates.

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In the UK, tickets are sold out even for Division 1 and 2 games, let alone the English Premier League. It will take years to embrace or change that kind of culture of commitment in South Africa.

In addition, some South African football players are also too motivated (or perhaps desperate) to play football overseas (maybe for financial gain) but are not entirely committed to getting it right in South Africa first. In essence, there needs to be a huge paradigm shift in how players' think (mindset) and how South African football is approached in its entirety (sporting culture).

Way forward – How can South African football can be improved?

Moving forward, South African football needs to focus on what CAN be done. These are:

  1. Re-visit the budget, monies spent and funds allocated to grass root soccer in South Africa.
  2. Obtain advanced assistance for youth development programmes.
  3. Recruit the expertise of added support staff to the football teams at both the national and domestic (PSL) level.
  4. Incorporate stricter regulations and quality assurance measures of all finances of PSL teams and the national squad.
  5. Encourage players/coaches to place more emphasis on three basics: ball possession, ball control and working towards calculated chances.

See 5-minute summary video here: https://youtu.be/gzNld-xdi4I

Dr. Habib Noorbhai (Mr South Africa 2017) is a Researcher in Sports Science and a Health and Wellness consultant. He is also a speaker and presenter. He completed a BA in Sport Psychology (UJ), Honours in Biokinetics (UKZN), MPhil in Biokinetics (UCT) and a PhD in Exercise Science at UCT.