Time To Remove The Shackles That Hold Back Our Players
Around the world pre-season tournaments are underway as teams from leagues all over the globe look for games in which they can test themselves, identify their weaknesses and look to fine-tune their squads ahead of their respective seasons.
Just last week senior Soccer Laduma journalist David Minchella made the point in this column that while many of the big teams in Europe travel all over the world to take part in high quality friendlies and at the same time grow their respective brands, it’s disappointing that PSL clubs do very little in the way of playing in any high-profile pre-season friendlies and don’t seem one bit interested in spreading the magic about their brands and South African soccer.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think if you’re a soccer fan anywhere in the world then you know all about South Africa because we did host a World Cup after all. But what the soccer world remembers of South Africa is not the magic of our football, but rather just our beautiful country and maybe our plastic horn (the vuvuzela) that we gave the world as our present to modern football. As a soccer-besotted nation with such a unique brand of the beautiful game, that is a travesty!
If we’re honest it was only the opening goal of the World Cup that alerted the world to the fact that South Africa could maybe play a bit. But since then the only thing that has gone ‘viral’ around the world from South African soccer is a cheeky piece of skill from Thabo Rakhale that had the world gasping at the wizardry of a single touch, a single reveal of the real DNA of South African soccer.
Now, ironically, both players involved in those moments of magic, Siphiwe Tshabalala and Thabo Rakhale, will come face-to-face this weekend in South Africa’s showcase event - the Soweto derby, albeit a derby with a twist.
The Carling Black Label Cup may come across as a bit gimmicky to the purists, but the idea of the fans being given the chance to select the starting line-ups of the country’s two biggest clubs is ground-breaking in my opinion. Basically it’s the clubs and the sponsor of this event saying to the fans, “Your opinion is important. Now tell us what you want and we will deliver.”
Now if you go way back, when South African players were brave, coaches knew not to mess with the magic formula and stadiums were full because of it, South Africa’s showcase event was about goals, about entertainment, about those unique touches that if the rest of the world could see, would have had them on their feet, with their hearts racing as they fell in love with ‘our way’. Much in the same way the world fell in love with the Brazil of the late 70s as TV beamed their delectable brand of football to parts of the world where hoofing the ball up the field and huffing and puffing after it was seen as the epitome of what professional football should look like. Where the world saw that football players did not have to be manual labourers but could be artists.
But if we’re honest those heady days of South African football are gone. Our way has been replaced by ‘their way’. And by ‘their’ I mean any brand of football that comes with an accent and has had any kind of success over the last 100 years. By ‘their’ I mean the insecurities and cowardice that overcome coaches who know they have a mandate to win or leave. Ironically the money in our game has not freed our players like it has done in Spain and Germany and even England to a certain extent; instead it has shackled us to results-at-all costs focused football.
Speaking to Steve Lekoelea this week and asking him why players were no longer brave like he was in derby games, big games, he said that players no longer trusted their instincts because for most of the entertainers, their instincts are coached out of them and replaced by a ‘I will think for you’ mind-set instilled by coaches - football by remote control. I’ve seen some great ‘paint by numbers’ creations hanging in houses, but the best art comes from those artists, geniuses who themselves never knew what their next brush stroke would bring. I’m even starting to think that Mona Lisa’s smile can finally be explained by the fact that maybe she is a recent Pirates’ fan.
This derby needs to be different. This derby the coaches are the fans - and it’s time to listen to what they want. As the media, in the coming days we will do our best to hype the game up as always - but if players keep dishing up the kind of football that has defined derby games in the last couple of years - then all this game will ever be is hype, and never get back to being what made it special.
Coaches and even some fans reading this will talk about the need for results first. Well, before going down that road all you need to do is look at the beautiful evolution that is happening at Orlando Pirates under Eric Tinkler. Not only are Bucs entertaining fans with their way, they are producing top class results. Winning football for big teams should by definition be the score on the board and the way it was achieved. And the way in which Pirates beat CS Sfaxien 1-0, with Rakhale showing he has end product to go with his box of tricks, should make all South Africans bristle with excitement about the coming PSL season.
It was also delightful to see Ajax Cape Town go head-to-head with Sporting Lisbon last Friday night in the Cape Town Cup where the Urban Warriors gave a magnificent account of themselves against a famous Portuguese outfit who is renowned for developing world class talent and is where reigning Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo learnt his trade before being snatched up by Manchester United after he tormented them in a friendly. Although they lost the game on penalties, they gave as good as they got from their more famous opposition and even within their structure, you could see and feel the ‘South Africanness’ about our performance, which even prompted the Sporting coach to announce to the media that this Ajax team would finish in the top half of the table in Portugal with a brand of football like this.
We all need to lend our voice to bring back our football, our way. It begins this weekend.
Hopefully our lads heed the call.