Football: Regional talent waning

 

The future of football in the Southern African sub-region can be best summed up as the depressingly dire if the performance of national teams in the African Nations Cup, the performance of clubs in CAF competitions and the number of players who have managed to break into the tough and gruelling European leagues was to be used as a yardstick to measure progress.

To add salt to injury, junior national teams in both the national under 17, 20 and 23 have fared very badly against their counterparts from other regions such as West Africa and North Africa.

Historically, it had been the norm that after such continental competitions, many youngsters were scouted to join world acclaimed academies in Europe but this trek to the north has seen many players from the Southern African region failing even to attract the attention of talent scouts, let alone to be invited for trials.

Since Zambian hero Kalusha Bwalya made shockwaves with his displays in the Dutch Eredivisie league with Dutch club, PSV Eindhoven after the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Zimbabwean Peter Ndlovu at Coventry City where he was a revelation for over a decade, Bruce Grobelaar, who made the number one jersey at Liverpool his own, South African Lucas Radebe at Leeds United where he was a star for many seasons as a great defender and captain, Benni McCarthy at FC Porto where he won the European Champions league, Celta Vigo, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham, Quinton Fortune at Athletico Madrid and Manchester United, Benjani Mwaruwari at Portsmouth and Manchester City, Steven Pienaar at Ajax Amsterdam, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham Hotspurs and Everton, Aaron Mokoena at Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth, Shawn Bartlet at Charlton Athletic, Mark Fish at Lazio, Charlton Athletic and Bolton Wanderers, a majority of players from the Southern African region have failed dismally to break into some of Europe’s tough leagues.

The few who were signed in the English premier league, for instance, went on to be some of the biggest flops and most of them failed to hold on to regular positions in the starting line ups and ended up being relegated either to the bench, reserve sides and were ultimately offloaded as they were considered surplus to their employers’ requirements.

Who can forget Angolan Manucho, who joined Manchester United with a big reputation after his exploits at the AFCON finals in his country in 2010 only to fail to make the grade, former South African captain Bongani Khumalo, who struggled to break into the Tottenham Hotspurs first team for a long time before being loaned out and currently finds himself at lowly Doncaster Rovers.

Zambian Collins Mbesuma left South Africa as a red-hot striker but failed to make the mark at struggling Portsmouth. Recently, former Kaizer Chiefs hitman, Knowledge Musona returned on loan from Hofenheim in the German Bundesliga.

While many players from the sub-region are in the books of clubs in unrated European leagues such as Sweden, Denmark and Belgium, they have remained stuck there with no takers from competitive leagues in Italy, France, England, Spain and Germany.

As for Botswana, the closest the country ever came to the English league was when former youth international, Mogogi Gabonamong went on trial with the Manchester United youth team.

Many reasons have been advanced for the regression of football in the region, among them the fact that countries have neglected grassroots development of players, which prepares them for the rigours of high-level professional football and basic skills, which they need to rely on in Europe.

While their counterparts in West and North Africa found it very easy to ply their trade in the English Premier league, French league, German Bundesliga, Italy’ Serie A , Spanish La Liga and Dutch Eredivisie, players from the COSAFA region were a shadow of themselves.

The soccer leagues in the SADC region were in dire straits and the supposed powerhouse, ABSA premier league is facing problems of its own. To show how uncompetitive football in the region has gotten, the top goal scorer in the ABSA premier league cannot even score 15 goals in a season.

Most of the players from Southern Africa, who had been signed by European clubs from the ABSA premier league, were coming back to the country after failing to make the grade there and this pointed to a cancer that was currently ravaging the football fraternity in the region.

FIFIA Development Officer for Southern Africa, Ashford Mamelodi, said in an interview recently that in his own opinion, he does not think that the Southern Africa region’s approach to the game was the correct one.

He explained that for a very long time, countries in the COSAFA region were not investing in grassroots development to prepare players for the rigours of the professional game, which demands a lot. “We don’t have enough development structures in most of our countries, including Botswana. This puts most of these countries at a disadvantage, as the senior national team coaches don’t have the luxury to look for new players at junior national teams,” he said.

He also explained that all countries that have succeeded and won continental and world championships had invested a lot in youth development. Even European countries, he said, were successful because they had invested in academies whose main focus was to develop players at grassroots level.

Mamelodi noted that in Southern Africa, the approach, which was being followed was the one which believed in the senior national team devoid of junior teams. He also said it was disheartening that in most countries in the region, Botswana included, most players are discovered at the ages of 17 when they would be in form four.

These players, he highlighted, would have missed out a lot on the basics of the game which are acquired between the ages six and 12 because of non-existent of development structures.

North and West Africa, especially in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Mali have world-renowned football academies which grilled young players and prepare them for the rigours of competitive game either in the continent or abroad.

“These academies nurture talent from an early age and when the boys are in their teen years they would automatically be ready. This is where we are failing and until we have established well-functioning structures we can forget about competing with the best,” he said.

He said the flawed football development model was evidenced by the inconsistencies displayed by national teams in the COSAFA region and gave the example of Zambia who won the Africa Cup of Nations after a long time only to lose the crown with the blink of an eye.

“Yes we are happy that Zambia won but after how long,” he asked. Furthermore, he expressed a concern that most people in Southern Africa region demand results from senior national teams when junior ones are dormant.

Football administrators, he argued, should ask themselves where players who are picked for the Under-17 and Under-20 national teams came from, as they were no known development structures in most of the countries.

As for Botswana, he said that the situation was disheartening as the Under-17 team, which recently returned from Morocco, was nowhere to be seen. “Everything has been quiet since they returned from the championship and one would have expected them to have been kept active with training camps and international friendly games for purposes of continuity,” he said.

Also, he said the coach should also have been given the chance to continue to monitor the performance of those players. Rushing for results, he said, was not sustainable and gave the example of the Zebras who managed to qualify for the AFCON championships only to come back and nose-dive in terms of performance as there were no structures to identify new talent.

In addition, Mamelodi said Southern Africa, including Botswana, was teeming with talent and he gave the example of Tsotso Ngele, whom he believes was ripe to be playing in a European league. The country, he said, should have the capacity to discover 20 players of his calibre to be competitive at national level and highlighted that consistent development structures were crucial.

Mamelodi noted that going forward, Southern African countries would also need to import quality foreign players in their leagues as bringing substandard imports does not add any value.

“It’s high time we set standards such as the number of national team caps one has earned before registering them in our league, especially with the new wave of professionalism having been set in motion,” he noted.

FIFA, he said, advised associations to invest in development and said some have taken the advice while others do not want to change how they run football. He said that if football in Southern Africa was to improve and compete with the rest of the regions, many things have to change.

For his part, FIFA accredited player agent and President of Glamour Sports International, Comfort 'Big Fish' Ramatebele also concurred that the COSAFA region was poorer in terms of football because unlike other regions football development had been relegated to the back burner.

“In West Africa, the Asec Mimosa academy has produced most of the players that we see dominating the English and French leagues. Players such as Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure and others who play in competitive leagues did not arrive there by accident, but underwent systematic developmental stages of competitiveness at an early age, something which is lacking in our region,” he mentioned.

Also, he said that a country like Botswana had no known soccer academy save for Matebejana. However, he said that one can detect that even with Matebejana more focus was on the BDF XI senior team. – Botswana Daily News

December 2013
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