As he works from home like most South Africans at the moment, national Under-23 team coach David Notoane has mixed feelings. He was understandably excited about leading South Africa at the 2020 Olympic Games that were meant to run in Tokyo, Japan, from 24 July to 9 August.
That, however, has changed since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government agreed to postpone the Games by a year owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. The postponement left Notoane disappointed as it adversely affected his preparations, but it won’t change much in terms of the players he can select as players born on or after 1 January 1997 will still be considered Under-23s.
Plans had been put in place for the Under-23s to play friendly matches during the Fifa international week in March against Japan and South Korea, but the coronavirus outbreak forced those friendlies to be cancelled.
“We would have intensified our preparation from June going to the Olympics. Now we have to come up with a new programme to make sure we build a team for next year’s tournament,” Notoane said.
“If you look at the impact of coronavirus, with the football calendar in Europe and here in South Africa, then you see that the season would have ended just before the start of the Olympics, which means we would not have any time for preparation for the tournament. So it’s befitting to have the postponement, to give us a year to prepare. I can only be excited and happy about this prospect. As much as I am disappointed individually, and I’m sure the players are, too, but we embrace the decision because it can only help us to prepare better.”
What Notoane had already planned
Top footballing countries such as Spain and Brazil were also on the list of teams Notoane had set out to play against before the Olympics, to ensure the team was fully prepared. The South African Football Association (Safa) delayed making announcements after the coronavirus outbreak caused football leagues and tournaments of different sporting codes around the world to be suspended indefinitely.
“I am happy we took that decision because now we can review everything,” Notoane said. “We were still planning on playing against countries from different confederations, like going to Europe in June, as well as playing against countries from North and South America during that period. Some of these confederations would be finalising their qualification for the Olympics at this time, so our plan was to try and fit in all the confederations between now and the start of the Olympics.
“Unfortunately, the virus affected ongoing negotiations with the countries we were looking at playing, such as Spain, the US and naturally Brazil was on the cards. We were having discussions to play Brazil before departure as our farewell match. Those are things behind the scenes that were happening that I am sharing with you. As much as we never made an official announcement, there was a lot of work behind the scenes.”
Notoane, who doubles up as Mamelodi Sundowns’ MultiChoice Diski Challenge coach, named a 78-man provisional squad. A number of South Africans on social media questioned the decision to have so many players on the list, especially with the Olympics just a few months away. Now that the Olympics will be played next year, Notoane will get a proper opportunity to look at all these players thoroughly, while those who were not on the list can work hard to impress him.
“If you look at the list of players that I announced and people thought it’s too much, now you start to see the value of that list. So this one year will really give us an opportunity to look at every individual and analyse them in-depth to see if they are maturing, and also look at those who were not on the list. It means we are starting on a clean sheet, but now the natural challenge for these players is to push themselves into the Bafana squad because that was the objective.
“A lot of them should be going to the Olympics next year as fully fledged Bafana players and they should be the ones giving us that experience.”
Doing better than previous generations
With so much time now to prepare for the Olympics, Notoane will no doubt work tirelessly to ensure that South Africa does not go to another Games simply to make up the team numbers. The class of 2000 and 2016 failed to go beyond the group stages.
“We started this project with the pressure of time. We did not even have a proper selection camp, so one had to use his experience and involvement in the Safa structures and knowledge of players to select a team that can take us to the Olympics.
“Now we have a fantastic opportunity to realise Vision 2022. Vision 2022 can only be realised by us going to the Olympics and I challenge the players to say we have to push ourselves to the limit at the Olympics. If we indeed want Vision 2022 to translate to success at Bafana level, it means we have to push ourselves to go all the way at the Olympics. For you to become world beaters at the World Cup in 2022, you really have to start at the Olympics and take cognisance that this is potentially a Bafana team that can go to the quarterfinals at the World Cup in the future.
“The one year gives us the chance to sharpen the players to make sure that we are not going there to add numbers, but to achieve things,” Notoane said.
Safa doctor Thulani Ngwenya, who was scheduled to travel to the showpiece in Tokyo, applauded the decision to have the Olympics postponed because of the fact that teams and athletes were unable to fully prepare because of all the uncertainty at the moment.
“Preparation is very important. On the football side, the Under-23s have not been preparing because of this uncertainty. They had to cancel their trip to Japan, had to cancel their trip to Australia and a trip to Botswana because of the coronavirus. So it’s affected preparations drastically,” Ngwenya said.
“I was also going to the Olympics as part of the Sascoc [South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee] team and, if you look at the athletics, they were really struggling because they didn’t know [what to do] and it was affecting their preparation. With the shutdown, how were they supposed to prepare? So, we welcome the decision.
“We need to curb the spread of Covid-19. You have seen that it is called a pandemic. It’s called a pandemic because of its geographical distribution around the world and its occurrence. The way we are controlling it in South Africa would not be the same way they are controlling it in Lesotho or Brazil. July is just around the corner and it might not be possible to reach a total eradication of the virus in a short space of time. People’s lives are more important. Yes, there’s financial implications and inconveniences, but it was quite important to postpone. This is a virus that spreads.”