Football mirrors our society. It also has the power to inspire people to achieve. South Africans of all hues support football in one manner or another, from factory workers, to service providers, to children, to neighbours and family members.
Due to its global reach and ability to transcend barriers, football is also increasingly used to communicate messages about important human concerns, such as HIV and Aids, racism, xenophobia, education and other social causes.
This year at the G8 summit at Camp David, deliberations were stopped for more than 90 minutes so that the G8 leadership could watch the Uefa Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea. In the end, Prime Minister David Cameron smiled all the way back to London.
Football has a measurable impact on society and is an undeniable force for positive change. In the autumn of 2010, the institute I work for initiated discussion on a research project aimed at exploring the complex terrain of football in South Africa. The project self-consciously set itself the ambition of identifying interventions that could potentially improve the beautiful game in South Africa.
The football project sought to explore why football in South Africa, which enjoys remarkable resources, abundant talent and the passionate support of the majority of South Africans, is unable to achieve satisfactory levels of competitiveness locally and abroad.
The project also sought to engage on the key question of how the country builds on the momentum of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, while keeping the spirit of a “winning nation” alive. After almost two years of research, the report — “The Philosophy, Science and Art of Football” — is being released this week. It will hopefully contribute to robust public discourse on the future of football in South Africa.
Among the key findings are that youth football development programmes emphasise winning, which results in coaches overtraining young players, and this impacts on their development and long-term participation. This is one instance of the deficit in our development programmes. This deficit explains why promising talent falls off along the way. Youth development coaches complain they are often forced to sell talented players to keep their development programmes functional and sustainable.
This alerts us to the problem of resources as well as the possibility of human trafficking — a challenge and threat that faces football globally.
A large percentage of young players in the selected structured youth football programmes in Gauteng who were interviewed did not want to play football in South Africa. Their desire was to play in professional leagues overseas. This demonstrates the perceptions of young talent on the nature, quality and prospects of football in South Africa in the long term.
As could be expected, the research highlights the fact that South African football still shows a strong gender bias against women. This confirms the persistent historical injustice of women’s oppression.
Based on the “fair play” principle, is there a way that football could be a change agent and make a contribution towards resolving one of our historical problems?
Many development players do not receive adequate nutrition and few of them see a general practitioner. Given this reality, there is no doubt that player and team performance will be adversely affected and, worse still, talent may be lost before the player reaches elite levels. More critically, this illustrates the link between poverty, malnutrition and levels of performance.
At a technical level, the report provides important insights into training methods. The international success stories reviewed over the course of this research project had one thing in common: long-term thinking, strategy and visionary leadership. This is the case for countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia. If South Africa is to overturn the patterns of below-average performance by our football teams and embark on the road to sustained international success and competitiveness, short-termism will have to be a thing of the past. Undoubtedly, the challenges we find in football mirror the state of our society in many ways.
All is not lost. Football’s future remains bright, provided that we develop widespread strategic leadership in football that is guided by a unifying South African football philosophy.
There is an abundance of talent in the country that needs to be identified, developed and promoted.
A question that requires further debate is one about the ideal model that South Africa should follow to develop youth football. Do we go the route of academies or youth development programmes attached to clubs?
There is still a lot of work to be done. This research project makes no claim to be exhaustive. We need to buy the tickets and support Afcon 2013. We need to hype ourselves and Bafana Bafana up for a good performance.
But if such a hoped-for performance is not to be a flash in the pan, we need to think beyond 2013 and even beyond Brazil 2014. There are no short cuts.
Originally published on City Press, November 24 2013.