Southern African’s Football Challenge: Knocking North and West Africa off their perches

When a prediction comes true, it is always very easy to gloat and sneer at people concerned saying, “I told you so”. 

Sometime ago, in this Southern Times Sports Forum, I made a bold prediction that Bafana Bafana risked being the first team from a FIFA World Cup hosting nation not to qualify for the next edition of this prestigious event. That was before the draws against Botswana in Gaborone, with Ethiopia in Rustenburg and the defeat in Addis Ababa, which was the nail on the coffin of South African World Cup hopes. 

I also asserted in this column that Southern African football under the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) was vastly inferior to that of North and West Africa. 

I have indeed criticised COSAFA in the past and I still believe that my observations still hold water today. I have also rightly praised COSAFA when they made noble efforts to resuscitate the erstwhile defunct COSAFA Castle Cup, which was held in Zambia this July. The event was a good advertisement for football on our region and should help COSAFA to get more sponsors at various levels. 

The World Cup qualification slots are all but secured now. We are now waiting for the final two – legged knockout rounds, which will see five representatives emerging to represent Africa next year in Brazil. For me, my predictions have come true; all Southern African Nations were eliminated in the first phase of the league format. 

Our best hopes in the form of South Africa and Zambia have failed to advance to the knock-out phases. I am not one to gloat about my predictions. There is no time to gloat because as a sports lover and proud Southern African, I am deeply hurt by the failure of all the teams that are dear to me to progress to the finals in Brazil next year. I am sure I am not alone in this frustration. A good number of Southern Africans share this disappointment. 

However, now is not the time for finger pointing and apportioning blame or even firing coaches. Those can never be the solutions to the challenges that Southern Africa faces in terms of knocking North and West Africa off their dominant perches in African football. 

In the mid-1980s, Sir Alex Chapman Ferguson was so frustrated by the dominance of Liverpool in English football. He made a vow that he would not rest until he had knocked Liverpool off their privileged perch in English football. It was a daunting task in the early stages but Sir Alex was unrelenting in his pursuit of excellence. He finally achieved what he had set out to do, that is to sink Liverpool into obscurity with regard to the winning of the English Premiership titles. Manchester United FC has now won 20 titles, thirteen of them under Sir Alex. 

I also have to confess that I do have a soft spot for Liverpool. It has not been amusing watching over the years, the team from Old Trafford increasing its iron grip and stranglehold on the English Premiership.

COSAFA and Southern Africa collectively are in the same situation. There is absolutely no reason why COSAFA and its member associations should accept mediocrity and let the dominance of North and West Africa in African football continue unabated. 

To add salt to injury, erstwhile minnows such as Cape Verde and Ethiopia are playing much more entertaining, exciting and disciplined brands of football. As for Cape Verde, I did comment after the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) that they were my “Team of the Tournament”. 

Cape Verde have no respect for big names. They made history by dumping Cameroon, the so-called “Indomitable Lions” out of the AFCON. Subsequently, Cameroon failed to make it to the 2013 AFCON in South Africa. Cape Verde have proceeded to demonstrate that their qualification for the AFCON was not a fluke. 

They are now two matches away from making their first ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup. If they can qualify and remain disciplined, they have the capability to shock a lot of big footballing nations next year at the World Cup.

Cape Verde’s performance is an upward trajectory of improvement whilst for the Southern Africa collective;it is a humiliating downward spiral into oblivion. The “Chipolopolo” of Zambia, Palancas Negras (Black Panthers) of Angola, Bafana Bafana of South Africa, the Brave Warriors of Namibia and the once feared Warriors of Zimbabwe have all capitulated, just to mention those teams that every Southern African usually places his or her hopes on.

COSAFA and its Member Associations must now calmly lick their wounds, take stock of what has happened and go back to the “drawing board”. However, I feel COSAFA can actually help with this process of technical introspection by organising and hosting regular football coaching seminars for technical directors and national coaches of the region, with a view to exchanging information, ideas and experiences.

The Southern African game is deficient in many respects. The defences are atrocious, midfields very sterile with no proven ball winners and playmakers and, of course, the attacking is blunt. Southern African teams do not at all strike fear in the hearts of their opponents on the continent. 

At the 2013 AFCON, none of the Southern African teams made it into the semi-finals. It does not need rocket science to know that our talent identification and development is not effective. The world-class players are not just coming through. Southern Africa has failed to produce more players such as Kinnah Phiri, Bruce Grobbelaar, Kalusha Bwalya, Lucas Radebe, Moses Chunga, Benni McCarthy, Peter Ndlovu, Philemon Masinga and Manucho. 

Southern Africa needs a defined system, a conveyor belt of producing such talent over the coming years to sustain the fight for honours not just in African football but world-wide. If teams from Southern Africa cannot make it to the FIFA World Cup Under-17 and Under-20 finals, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can take on the rest of the world in football. Southern Africa needs to go back to the basics by embarking on real grass-roots development programmes. 

COSAFA and its member associations must also work hard to increase rigorous competition at the junior levels. Official regional tournaments and invitational competitions should be organised regularly for juniors who will then graduate to play in the COSAFA Cup, AFCON, Olympic and FIFA World qualifiers. The football calendars for the next seven to nine years are already known. 

Southern Africa must start now preparing for the 2015, 2017 and 2019 AFCONs and the Football Tournaments for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The same applies to the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. It is a time for sober reflection and judgment and not knee-jerk political reactions by football authorities. 

Firing our local coaches and replacing them with expensive foreign coaches is not the answer. Empowering and supporting the local coaches through training and short-term attachments in other advanced football nations can help tremendously.

 Talent identification and development is the answer.There is no time to wallow in self-pity. The journey begins now!

September 2013
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