The South African national U23 team had it all against them in their attempt to secure a spot in next year’s Tokyo Olympics. At first, it looked certain that they’d make a strong case for themselves to finish at least in the top two but poor officiating, with a layer of ‘home ground advantage’ in the semi-finals robbed them of a place in the final of the CAF Africa U23 Cup of Nations but, against all odds, the boys have done it.
Although it wasn’t through a pretty passage, having had to endure the tense penalty shootout that went to sudden death against Ghana, in the third place play-off, it was mission accomplished for coach David Notoane and his charges. Going into the tournament with just enough players to start a game and getting more coming in dribs and drabs was never going to be easy but, without any noise, the team achieved their goal of securing a place in next year’s Olympics. Finishing third is by no means a mean feat, all things considered.
This is obviously not the first time we celebrate the qualification of our team for the Olympics, but one hopes the lessons learned from the previous instalments will come in handy. That we don’t repeat the same mistakes that have seen our young players not reaching their full potential. This group of players needs to be protected, supported and groomed for a better future. We’ve had so many ‘Golden Generations’ over the last 10-20 years but with very little to nothing to show for it. We’ve been doing well enough to qualify for big international tournaments, only to just add numbers, come back to the ‘drawing board’ and carry on with our lives. There’s never been any visible plan to grow and develop these players; if there was, then it was only visible to those who knew about it.
For the past five years or so, there’s been a great synergy between our junior national teams, with continuity seemingly a priority. The National U17 coach knew what was going on at U20 and U23 or vice versa, with the senior national team coach equally aware of what his juniors were doing. That’s why the current team comprises of players who have been at U17 and U20 and even qualified for international tournaments. The next step is to ensure that the bulk of this team doesn’t get lost in the system and graduate to the senior team. Abbubaker Mobara surprised the whole world when he kept Brazil’s Neymar in his pocket at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but look at the difference between the two players now. When was the last time Mobara was involved with the senior national team? This is not the only example of how lack of continuity has hurt our football, but having a former junior national team coach in Molefi Ntseki gives hope because he understands and appreciates the importance of progressive development. Ntseki took our U17 national team to the World Cup in Chile in 2015.
We’ve had good and promising players that were failed by the system and therefore never really graduated to the senior national team, ultimately missing out on attracting overseas interest. To a certain extent, that’s one of the reasons most of our exports are plying their trade in lower and obscure leagues overseas. Ultimately, that affects the general standard of our national teams and the production line of players because there’s no demand for our players from top leagues. We’ve not had players in the top leagues, playing regularly, in recent years. Funny enough, when we had no development structures, more and more big clubs kept coming to South Africa for talent. While there is a litany of reasons why that’s been the case, one of the main contributing factors is the lack of continuity at junior national team level, where players gain invaluable experience that prepares them for the rigours of playing football at the highest level. We are now content with sending our best players to Belgium and other lower leagues and expect to hold our own against players plying their trade in bigger leagues at international level. This has to change.
The rest of the world is trying to get their players to the best possible leagues and teams are also playing their part. It makes no difference for the junior national team coaches to play fringe players at club level because a 20-year-old is regarded as a youngster and therefore has no place in the first team. If our teams don’t take development seriously, then coach Notoane and his colleagues may as well forget about producing quality players because it starts at club level before the national team, not the other way around. Most of the current team’s locally-based players hardly get a look-into at club level, which means we will be forced to take fringe players to these tournaments. Local teams have to prioritise development and that is their responsibility. Everyone has an obligation to play their part in support of our national teams for the bigger picture – improving South African football.