How do you explain it when a third-tier semi-pro outfit beats the current PSL champions in a major competition? And not just beats them, but well and truly hammers them! Is it because our PSL is that weak that the gap between fulltime pro and semi-pro isn’t that big? Is it because when it comes to tactics and strategies the coaches who ply their trade in the PSL aren’t any better than the coaches who ply their trade in the lower divisions? So many questions come from a result that shocked South African football last weekend when Maluti FET College gave PSL defending champions and juggernaut club Orlando Pirates a hiding.
While the result has sent the Pirates team into a tailspin, with the technical staff hinting that the players who got a chance to play are maybe not good enough to wear a Bucs jersey. Where the top management of the club want answers from the technical staff and would like to see the game plan to identify the mistakes. Where supporters are chastising players, coaches and even management for signing these players and coaches, one needs to bear in mind a couple of things.
Cup football, especially a competition like the Nedbank Cup, essentially South Africa’s version of the FA Cup, includes teams from lower divisions for this very reason. If the Soccer gods enforced the ranking system, making sure that professional teams always beat smaller semi-pro and amateur teams, soccer would be a very boring sport and cup football that brings together teams from very different echelons of football, would not exist.
Cup football is made for Davids to beat Goliaths. It gives a team like Maluti FET College a chance. You see, over the length of a season, a team like Maluti, with all due respect, would have no chance. They don’t have the squad, they don’t have all the privileges of the best facilities, best coaches and best resources. They are under equipped for the long run. But what they do have is 11 talented players, each with a dream game in them. And if those 11 players each produce that dream performance over the same 90 minutes, with passion and resolve, and some encouragement from their fans, they can slay Goliath.
We see it all the time. Greece winning a Euro, Zambia winning an Afcon, England winning a World Cup... okay, maybe England winning in ‘66 was deserved, but I couldn’t resist. The point I’m trying to make is that football is the beautiful game because when it comes down to it, no matter what car you drive, what boots you wear, the endorsements you have or the accolades you’ve won, when the whistle blows, it’s 11 v 11 between four lines and, as long as the score stays 0-0, millionaires of the game and complete unknowns are equals - nothing more, nothing less.
That said, what this competition shows us time and again, is that in South Africa, for every Doctor Khumalo or Jomo Sono that emerges from South African soccer, because of the poor scouting structures, because of the complete apathy towards youth development, because of the clamour for immediate payoffs, some of our best and brightest talent has never been discovered. There are hundreds of Doctor Khumalos and Jomo Sonos who have never been found. Players good enough to take on the world, but that have to be content with playing in social township leagues around the county. And while the big time coaches and clubs and scouts will dismiss you when you point this out to them, it becomes a little more difficult to ignore when the shiny face of the PSL comes up against the grimy face of lower league football in South Africa. Brazil & Argentina, countries similar to us in terms of their demographics and ranking in the developing world, somehow manage to unearth generation after generation of their very best. Why are we not? What is going wrong? Are we forgetting where our football really comes from, where our magic is?
As our professional teams in this country become more scientific, more structured, more measured. As PSL clubs now look to independent academies and sports centres around the country for the finished product, the polished players… my plea is to keep looking for the magic. And when you tell me it doesn’t exist, that we overestimate the unique relationship that our ball wizards in South Africa have with a soccer ball at their feet. When you ask me to show you what magic looks like... I’ll simply tell you to look at Maluti FET College.