What’s up with the national women’s football league?

Safa is struggling to raise the money needed to launch the national women’s soccer league — and this is not the only stumbling block.

A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the national women’s football league. The South African Football Association (Safa) has postponed the launch of the tournament twice. Originally meant to kick off last year, Safa pushed the launch out to April and has now changed it to August this year.

Safa has only had informal talks so far with the nine teams that participated in the Sasol League National Championships. These teams — Thunderbirds (Eastern Cape), Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies (Free State), Tshwane University of Technology (Gauteng), Durban Ladies (KwaZulu-Natal), First Touch Academy (Limpopo), Coal City Wizards (Mpumalanga), Golden Ladies (North West) and University of the Western Cape Ladies (Western Cape) — will anchor the league.

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“We don’t know what to expect because we don’t have a benchmark [against which] to measure this,” said Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) coach Tebogo “Coolio” Mokae. “We are still in the dark. There is some confusion regarding how it will work. We’re still waiting on clarity. We will start our pre-season camp in February. We will wait until we hear more to decide how we will use our time from then until August.”

The catch with those teams is that the original structure of a 12-team league is made up of nine provincial winners, University Sport South Africa (Ussa) championship winners along with Celtic and Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies who gained their places in the league by being the only teams affiliated with professional clubs. Celtic also qualified as provincial winners, which means that the second-placed team in Free State, Tsunami Queens, will be the “provincial winners”.

University of Johannesburg will make it 12 as the winners of the Ussa championships. The football association is expected to provide clarity regarding Free State “provincial winners” and the uncertainty around other issues in a press conference in late January or early February.

‘R20 million a season’

But uncertainty about the new league isn’t the main challenge, money is. The Department of Sport and Recreation has pledged R5 million to the championship over three years, which is just over R1.5 million a season.

“Finding the money is still a massive struggle,” said Safa acting chief executive Russell Paul. “It’s going to cost us nothing less than R20 million a season to run the league. We’re struggling in terms of getting the money, but we said we are going to do whatever is necessary. We said if the money for the national league has to come from Safa’s coffers, that’s what we’ll have to do because that’s our commitment.

“We’re calling on corporate South Africa, who have been the ones orchestrating this thing, saying that they want equity and parity for women, to come forward and sponsor the league. Surprisingly, it’s two months since Banyana Banyana came back from Ghana and we haven’t had any approaches from these corporates who have been shouting that they want to do something. We challenge them to come forward, put their hands up and say that we are prepared to sponsor women’s football.”

Unequal respect

The success or failure of the women’s league is not entirely dependant on money though. It also boils down to Safa’s treatment of the tournament. The organisation has failed to give women’s football the same respect it gives to its male counterpart. A number of Sasol League matches start late because referees arrive late. When they eventually do arrive, sometimes it’s not all five of the officials required to run a match. There are also the issues of late payment, poor-quality kits and substandard accommodation.

“We are looking at the overall structure in terms of how we are going to deal with it,” said Paul. “This is another league, so we have to provide reinforcements and provide commitment that we will be able to have administration services that will support it. The NEC [national executive committee] passed a resolution at the last NEC meeting on the 13th of October that it’s high time we take a number of operations that have been taking place at a national level — we have been running the SAB League, ABC Motsepe League and Sasol League at head office — we’re saying it should be run at a regional level.”

Paul continued: “We should only be dealing with protests, if they arise, at a national level because the expertise lies at the regional level. This would allow us to work on national matters. The national league is a national matter, we will focus on that. We’re looking at how we’re going to juggle that with the resources that we have and devolve some of the powers to the regions and the provinces.”

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Paul shed some light on the league’s structure. The 12 teams will not play on a home and away basis like most leagues. To cut costs, it will adopt festival weekends like the MultiChoice Diski Challenge.

“Remember, you’re going to fund the teams to fly or go by bus,” said Paul. “You have to fund the stadiums, kits, accommodation, referees and food. We also have to help the teams with management and marketing, all these things cost money. We can’t just say guys put the team together. We don’t want to find ourselves in the situation that happened in the early years of CAF’s inter-club competitions, where teams would play the home leg and not honour the away leg because they didn’t have the money to travel.

“We don’t want to end up with that scenario, which is why we need to provide an opportunity for self-sustenance and, hopefully, as we move forward in the next few years, we may be able to develop franchises, people coming forward to say we want to sponsor that team. When that happens, the operational expense of running the league will reduce. We also need to give the team prize money. So if the costs are reduced, we will be able to give them more money.”

A boost for Banyana?

The impact of a successful and well-run national women’s league will benefit Banyana Banyana, who are still searching for their maiden continental title. Banyana boasts only two appearances in the Olympics and a ticket to France for this year’s Fifa World Cup.

“This will give Banyana Banyana a better chance of competing on the world stage,” said TUT coach Mokae. “Players will be regularly playing against tough teams, which is not the case at the moment in the Sasol League. They play maybe three or four tough games in the 16 matches they play in their province. Regular tough competition will strengthen players.”

TUT, who swept aside everyone in the Varsity Cup and the Sasol League National Championships, are favourites to win the women’s league when it eventually kicks off. They boast a strong team led by the tactically astute Mokae.

What will increase competition in the league is the relegation and promotion component. Safa has yet to finalise how many teams will be relegated to and how many will be promoted from the Sasol League National Championships.

“TUT are lucky to have a passionate and football-loving coach,” Mokae said. “I love what I do and I constantly want to help players be better than they were the day before. I do a lot of research and attend a lot of matches to see how our rivals are doing. But my biggest driving force is that I love development. I want to develop players to not only be better players but also better human beings.”

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