Osasu Obayiuwana: South Africa must confront the bitter truth

Had Fikile Mbalula, South Africa’s angry minister for sport, possessed a statutory right to execute members of Bafana-Bafana, for their dismal performance at the last Championship of African Nations (CHAN), I have little doubt he would have been sorely tempted to use it.

I’m also certain that some equally irate fans would have gladly paid for the privilege of watching the deed being done.

Having failed to qualify for the knockout rounds of the tournament they were hosting, Mbalula’s extremely blunt remarks, about the state of the national team, certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons.

“We indeed have a crisis of monumental proportions. We don’t have a crisis of talent. We have a crisis of putting everything together.

“I felt like just standing up and walking out (of the stadium, after their final group game loss to Nigeria)… In Africa we have won nothing – we are the laughing stock.

“This generation of players we must forget. We aren’t going to this year’s World Cup. But Iran is going and yet there is no football there.

“They don’t respect their mothers, they don’t respect their girlfriends, they don’t respect their brothers, they don’t respect anything…

“Sometimes you need to stand and fight for your country and your pride,” Mbalula said.

While it might be a good idea for the minister to brush up on his knowledge of the world game and know football is certainly played in Iran, which made its World Cup debut 20 years before South Africa’s, Mbalula’s unministerial lack of restraint has undoubtedly struck a chord with many South Africans.

Bafana-Bafana has not qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations finals – other than by hosting it last year – since 2008. And if it hadn’t staged the 2010 World Cup, South Africa would be missing out on the last three tournaments.

How has a country that has the PSL, the continent’s most lucrative league, as well as the best facilities for top-level football in the continent, courtesy of the World Cup they hosted four years ago, have a national team in such a sorry state?

In a conversation I had, last year, with Neil Tovey, who captained South Africa to the 1996 Nations Cup title – the country’s sole achievement – he didn’t hide his raw emotions on a situation that he described as intolerable.

“Everybody in South Africa talks about how bad things are. Officials talk a good game, concerning what we need to do. But no one is doing a damn thing about it.

“Ever since we won the Nations Cup in 1996, nothing has been done to establish a proper structure to develop our youth and ensure that we have a stream of talent coming through.

“So many relevant people, who ought to be involved in the development of football in South Africa, have been excluded from the SAFA (South African Football Association) structures. How can we grow in such a situation?”

Developing a long-term plan, in which proposals for sustainable youth development were recommended, was one of the admirable things Carlos Queiroz, the former Real Madrid manager, did whilst in charge of South Africa over a decade ago.

Having managed Portugal to two U-20 World Cup titles, in 1989 and 1991, taking Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and Rui Costa under his wing, Queiroz certainly has experience in nurturing young talent.

Unfortunately, Queiroz, who is leading Iran to the World Cup finals in June, was never allowed to implement his plan, after he was unceremoniously kicked out of South Africa in 2002, despite qualifying for the World Cup at the time.

It is no surprise that he is one of the coaches being tipped to take over Bafana-Bafana, when the tenure of Gordon Igesund, which is unlikely to be renewed, expires in June.

After failing to go beyond the quarter finals at last year’s Nations Cup, coupled with this year’s first-round CHAN exit, Igesund has very few allies within SAFA’s board.

But any honest and knowledgeable observer of the South African game would admit that not even the appointment of a top-class coach, in the immediate future, would reverse the flagging fortunes of the national team.

Igesund’s successor will struggle to get Bafana-Bafana effectively competing on the continental and global stages, whilst he lacks the requisite quality of players to work with.

SAFA president Danny Jordaan, who cannot be unaware of the depth and gravity of the situation, must know there is no quick fix for resolving the structural problems within the national team and, by extension, the national game.

South Africa certainly needs more than his four-year term in office, which runs out in 2017, to ensure its football has entrenched a sustainable youth policy that guarantees a stream of top quality talent needed for the rejuvenation of Bafana-Bafana.

But are the country’s officials and fans, often desperate and impatient for success, ready to face the inconvenient truth and accept that there are no shortcuts, if they are to finally arrest the longstanding decline?

Only truth, toil and patience – in executing the right policies – will bring Bafana-Bafana out of the thick, dark woods.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1660702212labto1660702212ofdlr1660702212owedi1660702212sni@a1660702212nawui1660702212yabo.1660702212usaso1660702212

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.