Long Read | SA football needs a reboot

Former Safa technical directors Fran Hilton-Smith and Serame Letsoaka assess why the dysfunctional association is on its knees and how to get South African football back in contention.

The South African Football Association’s (Safa) response to Bafana Bafana failing to qualify for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) was revealing. It laid bare the association’s state of affairs even though there was no honest assessment from those in power. 

Shortly after firing coach Molefi Ntseki, Safa sent out a bizarre statement proclaiming that Vision 2022 has been a huge success despite it being in tatters. 

Launched in 2012, the aims of Vision 2022 included “always being in the top three of the African rankings, and in the top 20 of the world rankings”. Bafana’s ranking hovered around 87 in 2012. In 2021, they are ranked 75. Safa president Danny Jordaan was absent from the press conference to announce Ntseki’s sacking and offer the way forward, despite having been a prominent figure during Patrice Motsepe’s campaign in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) presidential elections. 

Safa chief executive Tebogo Motlanthe and technical director Jack Maluleka were sent to face questions about the association’s culpability in another failure for the senior men’s national team. Motlanthe, when asked if Safa could at least acknowledge that there is a problem in South African football, answered astonishingly: “One will not say there is a problem. Out of 54 countries, 24 have qualified and 20 have not. That does not mean there is a problem.”

Motlanthe is one of the savvier chief executives to have served at Safa House. A good lawyer who was Safa’s legal head, he has carried himself well facing the media since becoming the acting, then permanent chief executive. How, then, does someone so refined produce such a response, poor arithmetic aside?

The answer is likely in a bombshell, 71-page report leaked early last year that former chief executive Dennis Mumble sent to Safa’s national executive. In it, he claims Jordaan has abused his office. Safa labelled the report “an attempt to create an atmosphere of instability in the association” and said “the ultimate aim of these individuals is to create the impression that there is a need for an investigation into the organisation”.

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But Motlanthe’s response to one question in particular appeared to tacitly validate the claims in the report. When asked if Safa – given that the public has reached a point of close-to-zero faith in the organisation’s ability to reverse the two-decade decline since a second Fifa World Cup qualification in 2002 – might admit that there is a need to investigate a fundamental restructuring of South African football, he responded that such an initiative would have to come from Safa’s members rather than its leadership. 

The manner of his response was that of a man singing for his supper, or attempting to avoid rebuke, in an atmosphere where “‘tyranny of the majority’ is quite evident in the manner in which the association’s business has been conducted in recent years, as Mumble’s report states.

Mumble also claims that Jordaan’s power is “mainly derived from dispensing patronage” and that “an imperial presidency” has developed “that has become more and more paranoid and distracted by conspiracy theories rather than understanding the true nature of the technical task at hand”. 

Motlanthe’s approach to the problem – one he says does not exist – would have Catch-22 character Yossarian’s head spinning.

Footballing politics 

Safa’s premise that it is one of the most successful associations in Africa, as Jordaan claimed in a press conference not long ago, is based on significant improvements in the junior national teams’ qualifications for tournaments and the success of Banyana Banyana. But that “success” doesn’t include a continental title. 

Pointing to women’s football, where the national team has qualified for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup, is a fallback for Safa and Jordaan when criticised about Bafana’s regression. And in doing so, he doesn’t own up to the number of times Safa has failed Banyana. 

But the association can only deflect so much from the men’s senior national team failing to qualify for a World Cup since 2002 and reaching just three of the past seven Afcons. And as Fran Hilton-Smith pointed out, the success of women’s football stems from structures put in place before the current administration. Hilton-Smith managed and coached Banyana in 2000, and was Safa’s technical director in women’s football. She also served as Safa’s acting technical director (in charge of all national teams) in 2015 and assistant to her successor, Neil Tovey, who left last year.

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“I think one of the reasons Banyana are successful is the High Performance Centre [for women at Pretoria University], which I started 18 years ago, which gives continuity to the coaching philosophy. And when I was technical director for a while, that’s what I tried to push,” said Hilton-Smith.

“I remember [ex-Bafana coaches] Stuart Baxter, and especially Carlos Queiroz, who had a fantastic master plan that a lot of future plans were based on, also did. The kind of plan that you have in Brazil or Germany, where all the teams have the same philosophy. So if the senior team are playing 4-4-2, then the Under-23s must and so on down. And that also starts with schools football, which, of course, we do not have functional national schools football at present.

“There was Sasfa [South African Schools Football Association], but that’s another thing we never get finished with. And Sasfa only catered for a few provinces. So Safa needs a national philosophy. Schools should be playing football, it’s just that simple.”

Ultra-competitive school football fed the production line of talent in the golden eras of the 1970s and 1980s, names like Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, Nelson “Teenage” Dladla, Doctor Khumalo and John “Shoes” Moshoeu. School football has fallen increasingly into disrepair after democracy, with about 3 000 to 5 000 out of 27 000 schools playing the sport. Safa points the finger at Sasfa for this.

“I also used to fight with Sasfa endlessly because they used to have eight or nine tournaments every year and not one for girls, and all of them knockout,” said Hilton-Smith. “So even for boys, half the teams would come and play one game and they’re out. That’s not development. The fact that not everyone entered Sasfa means they weren’t a national project. But since Sasfa’s gone, I don’t see anything in that space.”

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When Safa took control of school football from its associate member in 2015, Sasfa’s underperformance appeared to be used as a smokescreen for political retribution; Sasfa president Mandla “Shoes” Mazibuko had run against Jordaan in the 2013 Safa election. “Jordaan‚ with most of his followers‚ then actively undertook to isolate Mr Mazibuko from Safa structures,” says Mumble’s report, adding that a Safa congress decision to “remove Sasfa’s oversight of school football in the country was part of this effort”. This led to a protracted court battle between Sasfa and Safa that has further hamstrung efforts to improve school football.

Interprovincial school tournaments apparently falling by the wayside in recent years has further muddied the path to senior football for young players. “Due to the financial constraints over the last two years, there haven’t been many of the provincial Under-17, Under-18 tournaments they used to have,” said Hilton-Smith. “Also, Neil and I appointed 18 provincial technical officers [PTOs], one man and one woman per province. I used to get those PTOs to select players, and I would send the national coaches to watch those players.”

Safa did not extend these PTOs’ contracts in March last year, despite them being responsible for overseeing coach education, junior leagues and talent identification in Safa’s 52 regions. Motlanthe had indicated that Safa would not review their continuation while grassroots football remained inactive because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Austerity measures at Safa saw a turnaround to a R55 million surplus in 2020 from a R96 million deficit in 2019, but ongoing Section 189 retrenchments are said to be hollowing out much of the association’s development structures.

What happened to the legacy fund?

Early on in his return to Safa, Jordaan undertook to restore the nine satellite academies that feed Safa’s once successful, now long neglected School of Excellence. In eight years, two have apparently been established, in Durban and Gqeberha.

There are problems, too, with the National Technical Centre (NTC) in southern Johannesburg, which Safa acquired in 2014, largely because of the association’s perennial financial challenges. “Whilst it was a good idea at the time‚ it has become abundantly clear that this investment will not yield the required results,” says Mumble’s report.

The NTC was formerly a pleasure resort and the water slides and picnic facilities still bring in an income from public visitors over weekends. And junior national teams use the accommodation facilities when in camp. But the NTC was envisaged as a state-of-the-art training facility, incorporating fields and high-tech medical, audio-visual and instructional facilities.

Hilton-Smith acknowledged that “there have been upgrades. And in fact there are now, when I went there last when Banyana camped for Cosafa [in late 2020], two beautiful new fields and they were busy building a third. As for the other facilities, as Safa have said, they’ve got no money. Therefore, I think they haven’t been able to do what was envisaged by Dennis Mumble in his master plan.”

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The question is often asked: What happened to the R450 million in Safa’s 2010 World Cup Legacy Trust? 

One answer is that Safa’s local football associations (LFAs) set up Under-13 and Under-15 boys’ and girls’ junior leagues under the auspices of the 52 regions, 290 in 311 LFAs, the association said in 2015. Short of an empirical study of those LFAs, it is difficult to say how many are functional. Safa’s regions are notoriously dysfunctional and difficult to audit, given their unwieldy number, while amateur football has complained that its decline is linked to the restructure of the regional format from strong, province-aligned soccer at that level.

“A lot of these things are dysfunctional because Safa have admitted in their own meetings they are battling with money,” said Hilton-Smith.

An aspect of Safa’s technical master plan that originated in 2012 alongside Vision 2022 was the coaching of coaches. Safa fell short of its targeted 10 000 a year, training only 1 200 coaches in 2014. It is difficult to imagine, given the association’s decline in finances, any improvement since then.

“It’s a good technical master plan, but it needed to be fully implemented,” said Hilton-Smith. “To be honest, though, on coaching coaches, the biggest problem was CAF in the last four years.” When Ahmad Ahmad ousted Issa Hayatou in 2017, ending that CAF president’s 29-year reign, CAF employed new technical staff and “CAF’s A and B [coaching] licences are still not functioning, so Safa have produced lots of D licences”. 

Maluleka admitted in the press conference announcing Ntseki’s dismissal that by having to answer questions above his station owing to Jordaan’s no-show, he had been “thrown under the bus”. While some journalists wanted the technical committee head to accept a certain level of culpability for the Afcon failure, the seemingly affable official appeared no more than an apparatchik promoted through the cogs of a dysfunctional organisation. It’s not clear this is his fault.

Unqualified committee members

Serame Letsoaka was Safa’s technical director from 2009 to 2012. He related how a Maluleka predecessor that he worked with, Fanyana Sibanyoni, similarly found his way to the helm of Safa’s all-important technical committee. Letsoaka stressed that he was speaking in his personal capacity, not as a Fifa technical consultant, his current role in which he travels southern and eastern African countries “training technical directors on what development is”. 

Letsoaka was also a Bafana assistant coach to Gordon Igesund. He led the national Under-20 team to a last-16 finish in the 2009 Under-20 Fifa World Cup – the only South African side to reach the knockout stage of a World Cup. When asked if he felt that what he tried to implement as technical director was well received at Safa, he said: “Not really, because especially the executive committee then were the people who did not really understand the dynamics of football. 

“The chairman of the technical committee [Sibanyoni], for a year we could not even produce one report because we were fighting. Other people were telling him what development was all about, which was different from what I knew development to be. After a year, we sat down with Mr Sibanyoni, ironed out everything. I made a presentation to him about football development. That’s where we clicked and he became extremely supportive.”

The story of Sibanyoni’s rise through Safa seems to explain a lot about why the regions system is largely dysfunctional. “What Sibanyoni told me when we finally were working very closely was, ‘Coach, I come from the taxi industry. And one guy approached me to say I have this team, and cannot pay for travelling. So, I will give you 49% of the team, you give me a taxi to honour fixtures,’” Letsoaka said.

“And suddenly, because he is a good businessman known in the area, he becomes the Safa head in the region, he goes national and becomes the chairperson of Safa’s technical committee. He said, ‘I didn’t know anything about football, so I had to consult some people who are always in the media space who did.’”

This gives Letsoaka scant hope that the LFAs junior leagues will remain functional. “What are the credentials of the people who head those regions? Most just got to be there, and are not football people.”

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Letsoaka has a bleak outlook on the grassroots structure of South African football, too. “In football development, it’s like a school where a child will go through pre-primary, primary, high school, university, and be in a career. The starting point is grassroots, of children between six and 12. In South Africa, this is the biggest gap in football. Everybody is looking for a boy who is 14, 15. The aim is if I can get a boy in the national Under-17 team, there is a possibility this boy may get a contract overseas and this is quick money for me. So, we start our development very late.

“I think maybe in the Western Cape you will find Under-8, Under-10 playing, maybe in some parts of Joburg… it can’t be more than 10% of the country where you have teams from the age of six. It’s like saying, ‘My child will only attend schooling from high school.’

“We know schools football was very strong. And today we do not have these creative players because we have killed schools football. We have also killed the club system. At amateur level, somebody will start a team and his aim is to be promoted to the next level, or produce one or two good players who might go to a big team and he will get R200 000 or R300 000, and he’s only got 25 or 30 players registered. But before, you used to have A, B, C, D and E teams. The two major things that produced players for us in the country have been killed, schools and club football.

“We used to have Indian communities playing football from morning every Saturday, all the divisions playing. Do you ever see a lot of street football when you are passing through a township, like you used to? TV, PlayStation, cellphones keep children inside. There are a lot of things football is competing with. So you have to attract children as early as possible.”

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Letsoaka agreed that nine satellites for the School of Excellence could produce talent, even within a dysfunctional Safa. “How could we have fast-tracked Vision 2022? Every province needed to have an academy, your Under-15 and Under-17. At one stage, every child in this country wanted to be selected at the School of Excellence. And maybe in the last five years, the schools’ talent identification was lacking. They would go to a place like Bloemfontein and just call a trial. It was not the structured system we needed, but they are still producing players. So I am saying if we had an academy like the School of Excellence in each province, we should definitely be producing the players we want.

“Before, we used to have provincial youth tournaments – one year in Durban, the next Bloemfontein – where you had the 52 regions and the schools. We don’t have that any more for your Under-17s. How can that be? You don’t need a scientist to conduct research, you need your nine provincial academies.”

A former educator, Letsoaka has insights into why school football died. “One factor was they put principals under pressure for academic results. So the principal who did not understand that an intelligent child is one involved in sports decided to say, ‘We cut sport, and these children must just study and study.’ I think also the Department of Sport should have fought the Department of Education more to make sure we had better schools sport.

“Secondly, we resorted to too many knockout schools tournaments. You are a good player, your school is knocked out in the first round, you are left out [of higher selection].”

Letsoaka agreed that the stalling of provincial schools football, and the lack of a tournament along the lines of rugby’s Craven Week, is a huge deficiency. “Why is rugby so strong? It’s because of the schools and provincial tournaments. Why are the rugby players so big and football players so small? Young rugby players attend a school together, eat properly in that boarding school. Diet is such a significant thing for soccer players. Our most talented players come from poor backgrounds. If you take that boy into an academy where he will eat three meals, be guided properly, he will be similarly physically developed to the rugby players. Go to the Department of Sport and say we want to do academies. We have so many colleges of education that were closed, you don’t need new buildings.

“Year after year we will not qualify, we will be firing the coaches. We are not looking at the real problem. Take Lewis Hamilton and give him a Toyota. I’m not an experienced driver, in his car I will beat him.”

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