Focus on Junior Football Development

 

Congratulations to South Africa’s national Under 17 boys’ football team “Amajimbos” for qualifying for the FIFA Under 17 World Cup tournament in Chile to be held from 17 October to 8 November this year. This is a monumental achievement even though, South Africa qualified just as one of the semi-finalists and not African Champions. However, the mere fact that they got to the semi-finals at this level of continental competition is a remarkable achievement. As usual, Southern Africa is no match for West Africa in football as Amajimbos will be accompanied to Chile by Nigeria, Mali and Guinea.

Qualification for world championships as well as winning of medals at such events is always a product of hard work, dedication and commitment by the players, technical teams, national sports associations (NSAs), Governments and sponsors.  There are many other relevant stakeholders, including most importantly, the fans who throng the stadiums to support wholeheartedly the engagement of their athletes and teams in competitive and friendly matches.

 For Southern Africa to continue registering successes and rising up the ranks of various international sports federations there is need for greater prioritization of and investment in grass-roots programmes and junior development. “Catching them young” should be the catch-phrase and approach for all NSAs in Southern Africa.  Successful countries in world sport from both developed and developing countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Spain, Germany, and Holland have invested heavily in junior development programmes, sports academies and schools of excellence. The existence of lucrative, viable and well managed league structures at all levels is also a big plus factor for development of national teams.

For example, a simple survey of Southern Africa would most probably reveal the absence of junior structures for more than half of the countries. There are no junior sports leagues to provide for rigorous skills development and competition at an early age. This is in direct contrast to modern sports science. In terms of sports science, the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) approach has been widely adopted by many sports organizations and countries.

The LTAD indicates that it takes 8-10 years to produce a world class athlete. This means that the national football associations need to start now in identifying players who will represent their countries at major games such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2024 Summer Olympic Games.

Over and above, having good development programmes, the NSAs and their stakeholders must make deliberate efforts to expose young athletes at invitational tournaments before major games. In addition, the NSAs need to utilize their bi-lateral relations in ensuring periodic training attachments for talented players at major clubs and academies in Europe, Asia, North and South America.  Such training and competition attachments help to reduce incidences of stage fright for young athletes when they become in involved in official competitions.

In addition, NSAs and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) need to take active interest in the contractual arrangements for management, marketing and sponsorship for successful and talented young athletes. 

To adopt a laissez faire approach on this particular matter would leave young Southern African athletes vulnerable to the whims and operations of player scouts and agents most of whom do not have the interests of these players at heart.

Sport development and transformation needs to be guided by target-setting and performance measurement both on the field of play and in institutional development. Without objective and agreed performance targets, it is difficult to measure the success or failure of any organization. Sport in Southern Africa still has a long way to go in terms of junior development.

It has great potential to become a viable industry engaging thousands of youngsters in gainful employment and activity. It can also contribute greatly to the socio-economic development of the region.  However, sport development needs stable but innovative and visionary leadership to guide its development and transformation.

The Southern Times Sports has absolute confidence in the South African Football Association (SAFA) that they will provide Amajimbos with the best possible preparations for 2015 Chile. Who knows they might surprise lot of people at the tournament.

Other football associations within the Council of Southern African Football Associations (COSAFA) need to follow this fine example by South Africa. It is not just about money but it is more about providing the right training environment for the young footballers to excel utilizing available resources.

Young Southern Africans have now proven beyond reasonable doubt that they, indeed, have the talent to compete with the best in the world, earn a living for themselves through sport and make their countries and the region as a whole very proud. 

What they need are the right support services, which in most cases do not require a lot of money, just good planning and management.  

There will, obviously, be further ups and downs on the way but compromising on high standards and failure are not options. They should never be!  Halala Amajimbos Halala!

March 2015
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