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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

South Africa needs school league football

Mosibodi Whitehead

The 2018 World Cup is set to kick off in Russia on 14 of June 2018.  The focus will inevitably turn to Bafana Bafana’s failure to qualify for the global showpiece and the argument that South Africa lacks the football development will be advanced as the root cause of Bafana’s underperformance.

However, to say South Africa lacks football development is to ignore some simple facts.

The national U20 men’s team Amajita qualified for the U20 FIFA World Cup in South Korea last year and before that the National U23’s qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

We must not forget that the men’s U17’s participated at the 2015 U17 FIFA World Cup. Also, most PSL teams have well-functioning academies whose players find regular game time in the Multi Choice Diski Challenge.

You should begin to see a picture of a pipeline that supplies footballers to the professional ranks.

The problem is the lack of structured and regular nation-wide schools amateur football which impacts on the quality of players promoted to the professional ranks.

The best example can be drawn from the lack of proven goal scorers in South Africa.

After 29 league matches and with just one round of fixtures left to play in the country’s highest league, the ABSA Premiership, the joint top goal scorers are Mamelodi Sundowns’ Percy Tau and Polokwane City’s Rodney Ramagalela.

The two have netted a paltry eleven goals each.

Compare that with legendary Bafana striker Phil Chippa Masinga who scored almost a hundred goals, 98 to be precise, in just over 3 seasons with the same Sundowns a quarter of a century ago and the lack of present-day goal scoring quality is clear.

Masinga says his ability to find the back of the net was honed during his days playing schools football. During the 80s, when the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) matches were typically played on weekends, midweek schools league football was a big thing.

Townships would be brought to a standstill on Wednesday evenings as football lovers rushed home from work in town to watch high school boys playing top class football.

Many of those boys including Masinga made their NPSL debuts while still in school. Chippa played for Jomo Cosmos as a 17-year old. He believes that pressure of playing regular league schools football is what allowed him to quickly find his feet in the professional ranks.

“We were playing football week in, week out. On weekends we would play for our amateur teams and during the week we would play at school. In order for a player to improve they have to play football on a weekly basis,” explains Masinga.

He added, “Now we’ve got academies, some of them have to wait for tournaments to play. Are they playing league games? Are they playing week in and week out,” says Masinga.

That is the problem. Too much of our age group football is played in either tournament format or in sporadic academy leagues and there are just not enough schools playing football across the length and breadth of South Africa.

By the South Africa football Association’s own admission, “We need to galvanise everyone and get the more than 20 000 schools involved. We will approach the former Model C schools,” said Safa President Danny Jordaan in July 2017.

As a result, our players do not grow accustomed from a young age to the weekly pressure, however small, of having to consistently deliver excellence. The benefit of league football is that the repetition allows for incremental improvement and as the youngsters get older they become more competitive.

Thankfully there is hope and it comes in the form of the Investec Soccer League. The League, which is made up of 20 Soweto high schools, was first piloted in 2008 as the brain-child of Investec Corporate Social Investment in partnership with the Gauteng Department of Education.

This league typically runs from April to September which means that each school is guaranteed to play at least 9 matches during the league phase and as many as 3 more should they qualify for the knockout phase at the end. Already there have been successes in the form of players scouted to the professional ranks.

Thulani Secondary School of Snake Park in Dobsonville won the 2017 title with one of their star players Sifiso Sithole who is now part of 2017 PSL Champions Bidvest Wits’ development structures.

Wits coach Gavin Hunt believes that one of the answers to our underperforming Bafana Bafana could lie in replicating such leagues around the country.

“Cricket and rugby school sport is huge. We need to create the same environment for football,” says Hunt.

He adds that this is what used to happen when he was at school.

“That’s why we only identify talent at 22 and 23 in the PSL. When I was at school that’s what used to happen. When I was a professional I was still at school. It doesn’t happen anymore and it’s what needs to happen for us to identify talent earlier,” says the four-time PSL winning coach.

What we need for Bafana Bafana to reclaim its title as a force on the continental and global stage are regular, organised and nationwide schools league football.

Not only will this give us a greater pool of players to select from, but it will also raise the standard of the game such that the players coming into the professional ranks are of a superior quality.

This in turn will improve the standard of football in the PSL meaning that we will be able to produce with greater consistency the type of player that will be able to score that crucial goal that will take Bafana to the World Cup.

Masinga scored a goal against Congo in 1997 to qualify Bafana for France ’98.

Themba Zwane missed a penalty against Senegal in Dakar to extinguish the last glimmer of Russia 2018 hope.

One played regular schools league football, the other didn’t.

Whitehead is sports broadcaster and writer.

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