The magic of the Nedbank Cup is that for 90 minutes – sometimes a little more if extra time is needed – little known clubs, coaches and players from the lower divisions get their day in the sun. They get to walk onto a pitch with their names on the backs of their jerseys and face major South African soccer franchises, rub shoulders with famous PSL players and test their wits against top coaches.
Now, for the most part, professionalism will always see the bigger clubs through. The fact that PSL players train every day, with far better resources, at a higher intensity, with more sophisticated training techniques and with access to the very best soccer science has to offer means that inevitably they are going to roll over teams from the lower divisions more often than not.
Black Aces’ 7-0 demolition job of United Rovers and Tuks’ 5-0 spanking of Polokwane City Rovers is testament to this. But every now and then there are fairytale performances that make you stand up and take notice, that give you hope that there is depth in South African football. They make you believe that there is magic in South African football yet to be uncovered.
Then there was the brave performance of ABC Motsepe League team Milford FC, who certainly didn’t embarrass themselves against Golden Arrows. We also had NFD highfliers Baroka FC dispatch Chippa United. But the one result that made everyone do a double take was the Highlands Park performance against Mamelodi Sundowns. Now, remember Sundowns is one of the most expensively assembled teams in South Africa, if not the continent, so on paper Highlands Park should never have been in the running. Yet, it took a superb strike from Keagan Dolly five minutes into optional time to secure the victory for the Brazilians. The Highlands Park organisation can hold their heads up high. Displays like these instil a belief in South African soccer. It’s an indication that we have real talent that stretches deep into our promotional leagues and it’s wonderful that Nedbank supports an initiative that gives South African fans such hope.
Then, as if to shake us back to reality, we as a country are faced with an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Cameroon in two weeks’ time – a team which in all honesty we should be able to hold our own against very comfortably, when you consider the resources South African soccer enjoys. Yet the gap is cavernous, as ever. As South Africans, we recently celebrated the fact that we are back in the top 70 countries in the world, but surely that is not good enough! It really is time for us to make steps forward as a country in what is undoubtedly our largest and most loved sport. We should not be languishing at the bottom of a qualifying group for the African Cup of Nations that, with all due respect, includes Mauritania (with an average FIFA ranking of 152) and Gambia (currently ranked 162 in the world).
If this was our national cricket or rugby team, there would be outrage. It would be unacceptable. But the sentiment towards our national soccer team seems to be an acceptance of mediocrity and under performance. How do our players who take the stage for Bafana puff out their chests when they walk onto the field, when the country that backs them is too scared and cynical to do the same. I hope Shakes Mashaba is able to turn things around and get us the two wins against Cameroon that we so desperately need as a country to help us start believing again.
With regards to getting those wins, I hope Shakes took note of the latest instalment of the Soweto Derby. I say this because it is clear that our coaches in general are tending towards more ‘safe approaches’ to matches – so called “textbook football” – that hopefully provides a result. What won the derby on the weekend, in my opinion, was the introduction of a player who was willing to play ‘outside the lines of the script’ and disrupt patterns of play with which both teams were comfortable. Thabo Qalinge, in his 20-minute cameo, lit up the stadium and, what’s more, once he got going his fellow entertainers grew in confidence and were able to finally give the fans the football they had paid to see, as well as a victory to savour.
If Qalinge and company have not shown that ‘our football’ has its place in world football, then we will continue to be a mediocre national team at best. Surely it should be plain to see that the magic of our footballing past is actually our only hope for a brighter future.