South Africa – The FIFA World Cup has produced many shocks, upsets and surprises. One of 2022’s biggest shocks is Japan topping Group E. The big league group with Spain, Germany and Costa Rica lumped together. While Japan’s spectacular World Cup is brilliant for Japanese fans and neutrals, it should raise questions in the minds of South Africans as to what has caused the national team to stagnate.
Japan made its World Cup debut alongside South Africa in 1998. They have featured in the last six World Cups and made it to the 16th round three times. On the other hand, South Africa has featured in three and have never progressed past the group stages.
The differences between South Africa and Japan
Coming out of Apartheid, South Africa was a force to be reckoned with. Their height of success came just two years before they made their debut in the World Cup. Winning the African Cup Of Nations (AFCON) in 1996, South Africa looked poised to do great things. However, none of that materialised. On the other hand, Japan excelled throughout the years. One of the leading differences between Japan and South Africa is, Japan took the development of their players seriously as, says Farouk Khan, Director of Stars of Africa.
“When I was studying in Brazil in 1992, already then, Japan had 90 kids brought to Brazil to spend six months in intensive training with their tutors, with their physical trainers and coaches. They spent six months just in Brazil to ensure they learnt from the best. They invested very wisely in ensuring that they had the right people guiding them on the process. That’s the process that I think we missed out on. We haven’t had a process since we won AFCON. I think we took a lot for granted. We thought that we’ll have the next generation coming through like the likes of Lukas Radebe and the rest.”
Football changed around the world but not in South Africa
The great stars of the past grew up on street football and gradually progressed into professional football. Unfortunately, while the world moved on to different technologies and different playing styles, South Africa has stayed in the past and even neglected sports, explained Khan.
“Development is such an important aspect. That is why school football is so important which has been highly neglected. If you look at the education department, they have life skills in which kids can choose what they want to do during their spare time. Whereas in the years gone by, we had physical education. Two periods a week where you were forced, mandatory physical education. That is why it’s imperative we follow what the rest of the world is doing by utilising proper development structures. Which is what Japan has done.”
The process locally compared internationally
Every great footballing nation has a strong foundation. They have developed a strong youth foundation to ensure youngsters get the best possible training to maximise their potential. South Africa is sorely lacking in this department, explained Khan. One can even say the foundation is non-existent.
“Firstly, we don’t have proper grass roots development. We don’t have qualified youth coaches. At SAFA we have a lot of general coaching qualifications. That doesn’t cater for youth. Youth coaching is a specialised form of training. You can’t take a general or senior professional coaching and water it down. You can’t adapt it. There’s specific types of training. What you must understand is development has a process that has cycles of development. You get different stages of development. You can’t skip any of those stages because those stages have what we call training methods that are adapted to a specific age. It’s what we call age-appropriate training. You can’t do senior training with a 10 or a 12-year-old.”
Khan has found 16- and 17-year-olds haven’t mastered the basics of football. This translates to having professional football players who are underdeveloped and lack the skills required to be playing at the top levels.
“We don’t have the right foundation. If we look at our professional players, they lack the basic skills. Heading is a skill that is underdeveloped. Passing is a skill that is underdeveloped. Spatial awareness, knowing where you are in relation to your opponent or team-mate, tactical awareness is lacking. Physicality, we don’t compete with the rest of the world. You saw Japan off the ball, their speed. Against a team like Spain, I was so impressed with the speed of attack from Japan. Their technical level. Coming from behind, their mental strength. Going down to Spain early on, you could see they were not bothered or flustered. They kept their cool. We are lacking in those five performance areas simply because our foundation is not strong enough.”
Local players are not good enough
Most talented youngsters who make it into the PSL have their roots cemented in street football which they played in the townships. While they might have skills with the ball, they lack many other qualities a footballer is supposed to have. We often find the best players are not the skilled locals but those who come from other African countries.
“They’re not a complete player. You get a player who has skill or is talented, who can do certain things very well but football requires you to do everything well. You could find that a player is good on the ball but he hasn’t got a vision to make that important pass or he hasn’t got the ability to convert a well-structured attack … Collins Mbesuma still holds the record for scoring the most goals. I’m talking about 2003/04, he still holds the record for scoring the most goals … That says a lot about us. Every year most of the best strikers come from outside. It’s very seldom that we have a local player that scores above 20 goals or even if they score 14, 12 or 13 we would say that is well done. Which is a problem.”
South African has settled for mediocrity
Unfortunately the country has become so used to losing. It is not something shocking or even an issue. From people not caring about the national team losing, the media, and South African citizens are not bothered that youth national teams are losing and this a grave concern, expressed Khan. Their losses indicate a broken youth setup and training.
“If our under 17s and 20’s don’t excel, obviously our Bafana team won’t excel because this is the process we’re talking about. You need to do well in those junior national tournaments to be able to excel at senior level and that’s not happening. Again it comes back to that vicious cycle which we speak about, lack of proper development. Also the biggest problem we have is we don’t give people the opportunity to develop our players who have the credentials, who have the experience, who have the qualification. We choose people, firstly, who come cheap and secondly who are a friend of a friend. It’s got nothing to do with football. You can’t expect the guys who don’t have the potential to produce world class players to do so.”
Great, experienced coaches come at a cost but it is a cost that is worth paying for. It is through these coaches the youth can be developed and world class players can be produced. As more quality players are produced, the more likely it is the national team will produce better results.
South Africa has a lot of catching up to do with its fellow African countries as well. Morocco has managed to top their group and become the second African nation to do this twice. They are in the round of 16 and face their greatest test yet, Spain. Senegal also progressed but were knocked out by England on Sunday. In order for South Africa to reach the glory days of the 1990’s, investment has to be made at grass root levels. The youth must be trained, coached and developed in a proper manner. Only then will South Africa be able to produce world class players that will hopefully restore this once great football nation to the top.