Football dreams and reality are vastly different

Young players have to understand that only a select few will make it big and earn decent money for a reasonable amount of time. But how do they resist the lure of short-term gain?

Dave Waters, the junior-phase director of the non-profit academy Ubuntu Football in Cape Town, says young footballers still looking for their big break in the game in South Africa should plan on having another career even before their football journey takes off. 

Waters’ research for his recently published book, Dual Dream, shows just how long it takes to break into a Premier Soccer League (PSL) first team on average. It raises the question of whether or not players should be studying towards a qualification during the early years of their career.

He analysed the starting players in the DStv Premiership from 6 to 11 March 2020, looking for those between the ages of 18 and 22. He found only 13 out of 176, with just one – Tanzanian Ally Msengi, then with Stellenbosch FC – younger than 20. Incidentally, Msengi has since dropped to the GladAfrica Championship with Cape Town Spurs.

This suggests that the chances of a player’s career truly taking off in South Africa before the age of 22 is strikingly slim, leaving the average player with little time from there on to make a good living from football, particularly given that only 10 of the starting players were older than 33.

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“Can a player get a degree and break through to be playing pro or PSL football at 22? Possibly. [But it] depends on two things. First, the individual – are they organised, disciplined, motivated and driven to be able to study hard and train hard during that phase in their life, so that they come out of it in a strong position ready to pursue pro [football]? There’s probably little wiggle room to deviate from the plan and get caught up in distractions or partying etc, if that is the goal,” says Waters. 

“The second thing that I’d say has to be in place is a decent football programme. If it’s below the level of training, facilities, learning culture etc that the player would otherwise have been getting, then obviously that’s a football compromise.” 

Waters says a player he worked with at Ubuntu Cape Town FC, Vusumuzi Plamana, is currently pursuing this “dual dream” in the United States and seemingly managing well, but it’s rare. “He’s got a lot of the ingredients in place. He’s got good character, knows how to study and is pretty strong academically. He’s also got a strong football foundation having played for both the Under-17 and Under-20 national team. So I’d say he’s the sort of candidate who can do it.”

Tough conditions in SA

The challenge though is that some clubs in the country are not accommodating in this regard. A player in KwaZulu-Natal was allegedly told by his club to give up his studies to focus on his football. Coming from an impoverished background, choosing people paying him now instead of considering the future was an easy decision for the player, who dropped out of matric. 

A player who has managed to further his football and academic career at a young age is Constandino Christodoulou, goalkeeper at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire in the US. The former Manchester City trialist acknowledges, however, that most players do not have access to the quality of schooling he received at the prestigious Hilton College in KwaZulu-Natal’s Midlands and have fewer academic opportunities on average.

“I think the problem is more so with the clubs and the education system in South Africa. Our education system has just been so tumultuous in the last couple of years that we just cannot see that pathway.”

13 April 2022: Dave Waters.

Christodoulou says he used to know many 16 or 17-year-old players who hadn’t finished high school. “That’s not necessarily their fault. When you come from the unfortunate background that so many people do in South Africa, you can’t expect them to be going to private schools that cost extreme amounts of money. You can’t expect them to be getting a great high school education and then wanting to pursue that afterwards.

“If you look at a few of the boys who were lucky enough to do that, a lot of them have ended up in America. I know Marco Afonso just graduated from Grand Canyon University here in America. [There is] Alessandro Venditti. Junior Nare and Vusumuzi are both here in the States at the moment. Boys who are lucky enough to go to a decent high school or to get a good education in their teenage years are seeing the value in coming to the States and pursuing an academic journey.

“It is tough in that you don’t really have many options in South Africa. You maybe have Tuks and Stellenbosch at the moment – I wouldn’t say Wits anymore. There are no high-level teams that are associated with universities.”

Lure of fame and fortune

Ubuntu Football is an exception. The academy focuses on providing its players with quality education as much as on producing talented footballers, offering accommodation and a high school education. 

Inspired by Ghana’s Right to Dream academy, it has done its utmost to instil academic diligence in its players, but it is difficult to prevent their appetite being whetted when big clubs with less regard for their wellbeing try to poach the cream of the crop.

“We’ll spend more than R100 000 per kid this year and then, with those six or seven years, that’s R600 000 to R700 000 invested in their development, but a PSL club can actually take them for nothing,” said Ubuntu Football co-founder and executive director Casey Prince. “That’s just the way the rules are set up. It’s a frustrating position to be in. That’s partly why being a professional club at least gives you some protection. 

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“The clubs are business first, so there hasn’t been a lot of interest in honouring the work we do. To their credit, SuperSport [United] have honoured it and we have a positive relationship with Stellenbosch. Those have been the only ones who have been willing to honour our relationship with the boys.

“They go through the processes properly, so if a kid shows up there and they said or an agent said they were an Ubuntu player, they would contact us and find out why they were there. Most of the time, it’s us sending them players. I think we want to send players to clubs that are playing young players. Those are the only two clubs in the country that are playing young players… One of those clubs has compensated us.”

Realistic planning

Ubuntu Football had a spell playing in the GladAfrica Championship, South Africa’s second tier, but currently play in the third-tier ABC Motsepe League. Prince says he generally advises players to pursue a tertiary education should he decide that they are unlikely to progress beyond second-tier football in the country.

In the long run, Prince hopes that Ubuntu Football can form a partnership with a South African club. For the time being, scholarships in the US are an attractive option for many of its best players, while others, such as Matsatsantsa a Pitori’s Jesse Donn may seek to go directly into professional club football.

Waters’ research highlights that South African players who do not invest time in preparing for a career outside of football are counting on being one of very few who ever start at a high level. They hope they’ll earn enough in what will likely be a short space of time to sustain them for life. In other words, they are banking on being the exception to the rule – a dangerous path. This is why he encourages players not to view careers outside of football as “plan B”, but rather as part and parcel of a “dual dream”.

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There are clubs doing work to prepare players for life after football. For example, AmaZulu launched a business college in 2021, with KickOff reporting that players are set to receive graduate training in entrepreneurship and business management.

The PSL and MultiChoice recently launched a player transition programme, partnering with the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of the Witwatersrand. It aims to help players aged between 28 and 35 transition into life after football.

These are important steps to address a gap in South African professional football, but until work is done to ensure that players have easier access to education from a young age, sustaining themselves for life will always be an uphill battle.

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