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South Africa, Wake Up!

Two weeks ago, the Barclays English Premiership took Cape Town by storm, with 35 000 passionate football supporters converging in Camps Bay over two days to watch #BPLlive matches in a family atmosphere.
 
However, with PSL crowd attendance figures dwindling over the last couple of seasons, one has to wonder where the English Premiership’s inroads in South Africa will lead. If the two-day event’s success is anything to go by, we need to wake up and realise that something needs to be done and soon. The only time the Mother City pulls so many people to a football match is when Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates or Mamelodi Sundowns are in town and, sadly, even the Big Three have struggled to attract that many supporters to their games in recent times. How can South Africans relate to the BPL more than their own PSL? What are we doing wrong as a country, and one of the world’s football-crazy countries at that? Why do we find some of our kids identifying more with Premier League players than home-grown idols, who they could be watching live at the stadium week in and week out?
 
How many of our kids know Golden Arrows, Maritzburg United, Jomo Cosmos or Pretoria University’s starting line-ups, to mention just four PSL teams? What happened to every South African kid looking up to the likes of Ace Ntsoelengoe, Professor Ngubane, Jomo Sono, Lucas Radebe, Tebogo Moloi, Doctor Khumalo, Shakes Kungwane, Scara Ngobese, Jabu Mahlangu and many other football icons who kept us on the edges of our seats? What happened to that football? 
 
We are consistently fed the ‘modern football’ hogwash when we are actually being brainwashed into adopting other people’s football philosophies at the expense of our own. We’ve had a number of European teams opening youth academies in South Africa and effectively planting their own football styles right under our own noses. These people are supposedly developing our football while, in essence, they are actually instilling their own football identity into our youngsters. They are coaching the South African way completely out of our players… and we see nothing wrong with that? 
 
There is nothing wrong with our football identity, there is nothing wrong with the expressive nature of our footballers and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the skill and flair that sets our players apart from anyone else. After all, these same attributes are exactly what differentiates one of the best players in the world at the moment, Neymar, from the rest. He skins opposition with his skill and South Africans relate to him, however, if he was to play in our league, he probably wouldn’t even get regular game-time! We had Ace and Jomo, who couldn’t tackle but played effective football without anyone forcing them to become defenders. We had Shakes and Doctor, who couldn’t run, fight for aerial balls or chase after attackers but give them the ball and watch the magic! 
 
One of the most memorable cup finals in South African football history is the 2009/10 MTN8 final between Golden Arrows and Ajax Cape Town. Manqoba Mngqithi and Mandla Ncikazi gave us a humdinger of a final at the Orlando Stadium by thrashing their Mother City counterparts 6-0 with a magnificent display. It was what South African football is all about and exactly what the supporters want to see! This was the great Foppe de Haan’s team (although he wasn’t on the bench on the night) with Jan Pruijn manning the Urban Warriors’ bench. In the game Njabulo Manqana scored one of the best goals ever witnessed in the country with a cheeky finish using the outside of his foot which left everyone talking. That’s the kind of stuff people expect from the likes of Ronaldinho and that’s what keeps people coming back to the stadiums for more. That’s why the supporters adore players like Thabo Rakhale, Thabo Qalinge, Hendrik Ekstein and many other skilful players. 
 
What our football needs is not a new identity or a change of philosophy. Just like former Mamelodi Sundowns Cameroonian legend, Roger Feutmba, said in last week’s edition of Soccer Laduma, our players are technically good and can play quick, one-touch football with rhythm. What we need is some organisation and compactness at the back because, going forward, we can match and beat anyone on our day. That was proved by Bafana Bafana against Cameroon last weekend. What becomes really worrying is when someone else appreciates what we have more than we do. While we are busy marvelling at what other countries are doing, we are slowly but surely losing our own identity. The sooner we wake up and realise this sad reality, the better for our beautiful game! 
 
With more and more foreign football academies opening in the country, I wouldn’t be surprised if we become another ‘adopted’ league in the next couple of seasons. That’s really worrying because there are very few teams in the EPL, for instance, that excite me enough to watch the full duration of the game without changing channels. While I’m happy to see good relationships between us and other leagues, I’m very sceptical about losing our identity in the name of building good relationships. What the Premier League’s Managing Director, Richard Masters, had to say about their recent visit and future plans had me thinking.
 
“BPL Live Cape Town has been a fantastic experience for the Premier League and our clubs. We are very grateful to the fans, who have attended this event from all over Cape Town and shown their passion for the Barclays Premier League. The clubs have put on some brilliant initiatives for fans and 35 000 people have attended BPL Live across the two days – an illustration of the dedication in South Africa to the League. Our visit to Cape Town has not just been about BPL Live. Premier League club coaches and former players have inspired young people all over the city with community football sessions and other projects, including at our community day at the Khayelitsha Safe Hub. We have loved every minute of being in Cape Town and hope to come back in the future,” said Masters. 
 
Recently, the Spanish La liga opened offices in Johannesburg to extend their brand in South Africa and held a similar event to the #BPLlive. They also made it clear that they were open to rolling out such activities throughout the country. 
 
South Africa, wake up before the future of our own football is completely eroded! 
 
Cheers, VJ
 

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