South Africa’s 49m population will be viewing the
Historically, football in South Africa has lagged behind rugby union and cricket, with the Springboks teams in both sports enjoying considerable international success. However, even in the post-apartheid era, black sporting heroes such as Bryan Habana and Makhaya Ntini have been the exception rather than the rule, and football has become the sport of choice among much of South Africa’s youth. Perhaps this surge in popularity was necessary before the South African FA could seriously look at a widespread programme of youth development. In 2008, Mwelo Nonkonyana announced an eight-point plan for developing the next generation of Bafana Bafana players, centred around new technical director Serame Letsoaka. The establishment of national coaching standards and the move to futsal among young players are signs of a clear vision for the future. At the end of 2009, regional player development was also increased from £13 600 to £23 000 for each of the 52 footballing regions. The Premier Soccer League – a slowly-improving offshoot of the 1971 incarnation of the National League – contributes 19 of the 29 players who are included in the provisional World Cup squad. Orlando Pirates, historically the strongest South African club side, won the CAF Champions Cup in 1995, so while they are still short of giants like Al-Ahly Cairo, South African sides have become a force at continental level. This has enabled their best players to become an attractive proposition to clubs in the major European leagues.
South Africa’s World ranking of 90th is largely the result of an unhappy and unsuccessful African Cup of Nations campaign where failure to qualify represented a major setback. Blessed with a golden generation of players in the mid 1990s (Mark Fish, Lucas Radebe, Mark Tinkler, Phil Masinga, Shaun Bartlett), they hit an all-time high of 16th in the world during a period where they won the 1996 African Cup of Nations (on home soil) and successfully qualified for France 98. Their steady decline in the second half of the 2000s is perhaps an indication that the SAFA’s recent plans, while laudable, have come after the stable door has bolted. With this in mind, and a tough group containing France, Uruguay and Mexico, qualification for the knock-out stages of the tournament would surely represent a positive result for Bafana Bafana. To do this, striker Benni McCarthy’s contribution is going to be vital. Prone to bouts of yo-yo motivation, they will need the former Ajax and Porto striker to show the clever movement and metronomic finishing he’s capable of. Likewise, Steven Pienaar, another ex-Ajax man so impressive for Everton this season, will be assigned the task of supplying ammunition while the rest keep it tight at the other end. Their returning Coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira – an uncharacteristically pragmatic Brazilian – will be likely to implement a conservative game-plan to deal with the superior quality possessed by the French in particular. He has managed underdogs at World Cups before, notably UAE and Saudi Arabia, so knows the dos and do nots of this engagement better than anyone. Even when managing his native Brazil to glory in 1994, he used Dunga and Mauro Silva as holding players, so expect Aaron Mokoena and another of his ilk to be protecting the Bafana Bafana defence.
He will know a repeat of 1994 is no more than a pipe dream, and their absence from the Africa Cup of nations, while an obvious disaster on one level, has at least given him a chance to implement this strategy in a low-pressure environment. That they beat Swaziland 6-2 in a recent friendly, only to be held 1-1 by Namibia a few days later suggests that the strategy is still a work in progress. One also wonders about the benefit of a training camp in Brazil without their English-based (thus arguably their best) players. The friendly against Denmark in Soccer City in June 5 will be a test of to what extent this has benefitted them. Home advantage will be crucial, but the possibility of an altitude advantage may have been wiped out by the luck or otherwise of the draw. The games in Johannesburg and Pretoria where this may have been an issue are against Mexico and Uruguay. Anyone who spends time in Mexico City, or faces frequent trips to Bolivia, will be more used to altitude than other countries in the competition. All in all, it is going to be very difficult for the hosts, but they can draw inspiration from the USA, who faced a very similar situation in 1994, and went on to pleasantly surprise us all.