The ongoing Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup just goes to show how much of an importance the quadrennial tournament holds in the football fraternity. Once again, the World Cup continues to be a learning place where coaches, the media, footballers, administrators, football associations, supporters, referees and everyone associated with the beautiful game can steal a thing or two with their eyes.
The more we remain open-minded about the lessons that are playing out in front of us on a daily basis at this event, the better it will be for our football in general. There have been a few surprises so far in this tournament and that speaks to the gap that is slowly closing between the powerhouses and the underdogs. There are a couple of learning areas that we should appreciate and take note of from this football festival. Several teams, even African teams at that, have players that boast more than 50 national team caps in their squads. This is not just one or two players per team but a decent number that is sometimes close to completing a starting line-up. That speaks to consistency in team selection, which is vitally important for any team looking to win silverware or dominate. For a national team to have seven players, for example, in their team boasting close to 70 national caps means they must have started playing at international level from a young age and there was always a plan and vision in place. The coaches or the association knew exactly what they were doing when they called those players up in the first place. The national team is not an experimental phase, only the best should be privileged enough to represent the country. Experiments can be done at club level and anyone called up to the national team should earn their place. Only future stars and those who are ready to deliver straight away should be wearing the national team jersey.
If you remember coach Clive Barker's Bafana Bafana, you'll appreciate the importance of consistency. One of his strong points that worked for him was consistent team selection. He wasn't a coach donating national team caps to every Tom, Dick and Harry. His starting line-up was so predictable that everyone knew it, which meant those players were like a club football team rather than a national team. To this day, no senior national team coach has surpassed coach Clive's 1996 Afcon success because we’ve been chopping and changing players in the national team since then. When you have two players with 60 caps, while the rest are below 20, the 60 caps get diluted. This doesn’t mean, by any means, that you don’t need young blood, but there is a way to introduce young players into the team. You also can’t have a player in the national team for three consecutive games and then never hear of him again. That, sadly, has happened a few times already in our national teams over the years and you are left wondering: what was the thinking behind bringing that player on board in the first place?
When you have consistency in team selection, it creates camaraderie among the players. It creates telepathic understanding in the team, where players can communicate non-verbally on the field of play as they understand one another like the back of their hands. The tricky part with national team football is that there is never enough time for the coach to infuse his philosophy, as is the case at club level where the coach will have a pre-season camp. Players report for camp a few days before the game, some bearing bruises from league matches, while others are fatigued from back-to-back club football and need time to recover. When you have a stable team, half your job is done because everyone is on the same page even if you train twice, players will know exactly what’s expected of them. Even if the coaches get changed, when the association has a clear vision, the next coach will take over from where his predecessor left off and continue with the project because the objectives remain. Different coaches but same philosophy and vision. This speaks to the national team identity, which is another very important aspect that we can learn from. With identity, players can be changed, but the profiles of positions will remain the same. The coaches hired by the association will be determined by the identity, philosophy and vision of the team, so that there are no clashes.
We've lost the plot by appointing coaches who will be looking to change our way of doing things instead of improving it. Coaches who knew little to nothing about us but were only happy to impose their ideology. While it may work, from time to time, it is usually accidental success because it is not sustainable. This is a challenge not only at national team but club level as well, where we desperately try to fit a square peg in a round hole at times. Because of instant success, we turn a blind eye to the fundamentals and get carried away thinking we are on the right track until the brown stuff hits the fan.
Another interesting learning is the players playing at a higher level, in the top five leagues in the world. We need to export our players at a young age so that they get international exposure and experience. With the resources we have, coupled with our talent and skills level, we should have players capable of competing against anyone in the world. What we see done by Spanish and Brazilian players, for instance, is nothing new to our players, but the two countries beat us hands down at managing their talents. We don't have a player in the top five leagues in the world and the last time we had a regular starter in the EPL, for instance, was when Steven Pienaar was still playing. Our best player at the moment, Percy Tau, is not enjoying regular game time in Egypt after his well-documented frustrations abroad. Is this a true reflection of South African football? You scratch your head trying to think of a top South African player abroad, and what about the next generation? Thulani Serero, May Mahlangu and many others were some of the best players that we looked up to as the next generation to hoist our flag at the highest club level, but they didn't live up to expectations.
With all due respect to our players, as much as they've done well for themselves, we'd be lying to ourselves if we said they have lived up to their billing. It could be that it was not their fault, the system failed them as they could only do so much. The bottom line is that we desperately need to have our young players exported to big leagues in the world so that they can bring their expertise to benefit our national teams and football in general. That's what we need to learn from Senegal, Cameroon and even Ghana. The sooner we take stock from this tournament, the better, and there is still a lot more to learn from this beautiful game, especially as we are approaching the business end. Boys will be separated from men, but let this not just be another tournament we watched and enjoyed. We need to take something from it so that we start preparing for the qualifiers and ensuring that we have our national team representing us in the next instalment.
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