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Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos reacts in disappointment after a missed chance by defender Khuliso Mudau in the Africa Cup of Nations semifinal against Nigeria at Stade de la Paix in Bouake, Ivory Coast on Wednesday night. Picture: GAVIN BARKER/BACKPAGEPIX
Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos reacts in disappointment after a missed chance by defender Khuliso Mudau in the Africa Cup of Nations semifinal against Nigeria at Stade de la Paix in Bouake, Ivory Coast on Wednesday night. Picture: GAVIN BARKER/BACKPAGEPIX

Abidjan — Even on the last day of the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Sunday, Bafana Bafana were on the agenda. Their third play-off match was a day earlier where they defeated Democratic Republic of Congo on penalties but there was still the small matter of ending the tournament with the awards ceremony, where some of the spotlight shone on Bafana once more.

Ronwen Williams was named goalkeeper of the tournament and the Bafana captain also collected the Fair Play award on behalf of his team. This was a sign of the huge progress coach Hugo Broos’ side made at this tournament where they started as no-hopers and ended with the bronze medal.

Bafana not only impressed as a team — winning four, drawing two and losing one of their seven matches against Africa’s best — they showed tactical flexibility and an ability adjusted to fast-changing match situations, like in their best performance, the 2-0 last 16 win against 2022 World Cup semifinalists Morocco.

They dominated Namibia, ground out a result against Cape Verde and pushed eventual runners-up Nigeria all the way.

Individually, there are players who left Abidjan on Tuesday with their reputations significantly enhanced and hopefully one or two will move overseas. Apart from Williams, eye-catching performances came from right-back Khuliso Mudau and midfielders Teboho Mokoena and Sphephelo Sithole.

Image: supplied

It was a rare good tournament for Bafana as they reached the semifinal for the first time in 24 years.

Supporters have every right, especially after such a long period of disappointment, to celebrate Bafana's achievements but the exuberance must not mask that beyond the gloss, the true state of our football is not glittering like SA's bronze medals.

A one-off success after two decades of underachievement does not mean the problems besetting men’s SA football have suddenly disappeared, especially when it comes to development. Broos admitted in one of his press conferences here that South Africans must not think we are now world-beaters because there is still a lot of work to be done.

We are a footballing nation where talented teenagers such as Thapelo Maseko, Jayden Adams, Relebohile Mofokeng, Shandre Campbell, Luke Baartman, Siyabonga Mabena, Mduduzi Shabalala, Ime Okon and Asanele Velebayi have little or no senior international football experience.

Credit must be given to clubs like SuperSport United, Stellenbosch FC and Cape Town Spurs for their efforts in developing young players, and bravery in fielding them. However, most of the time SA’s ability to field world-class teenage talent at senior level does not measure up to international standards, and that is the harsh reality.

Around the world, players who now are in their early 20s but started cutting their teeth against men as teenagers include Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Jamal Musiala (Bayern Munich), Gavi (Barcelona), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal) and Pedri (Barcelona). Jude Bellingham (Real Madrid), Warren Zaire-Emery (Paris St-Germain) and Lamine Yamal (Barcelona) are other young players who are already household international stars at a young age, having made their debuts early.

These players play regular Uefa Champions League football and many are established internationals; some have already played at the World Cup. Some will be key members of their national teams at the Euro Championships in Germany in June.

This is the difference between SA and top football nations. Our system is not producing exceptional players who can be sent to Europe at an early age to develop into being among of the best in the world.

Speaking to some of the international agents and scouts here at Afcon, they unanimously agreed the profile of South African players is not what most clubs are looking for in Europe. South African players are generally skilful and comfortable on the ball but agents say elite European clubs prefer West and North Africans who have skill, are comfortable on the ball and most importantly have height and the physique.

Of course this is subjective because most South Americans are not physically imposing but they succeed in leagues around the world.

In Bafana, there were only three players in Percy Tau, Williams and Themba Zwane who had previous Afcon experience. Mokoena, who impressed in Ivory Coast, was playing in his first Afcon at the age of 27, which may be hindrance for an overseas move as European clubs usually prefer younger players.

Also, we should not celebrate that we made it to the semifinal with a squad made up of almost all local-based players, because such a feat is not sustainable in the long run. Reality points to the fact any African team will be improved by players playing in stronger leagues abroad, as Ivory Coast and Nigeria proved as Nations Cup finalists, and Morocco as the first African World Cup semifinalists in 2022.  

The only way we can ensure that our younger players gain senior international experience early is to start prioritising the Cosafa Cup and Chan. Admittedly, it is almost impossible to postpone the DStv Premiership during Cosafa and Chan, but with better planning and communication between Safa and the PSL, there may be a workable solution.

The Bafana squad in the Ivory Coast had not even one player who turned out at the last Cosafa Cup. South Africa is giving international experience at Cosafa to players who do not have realistic chances of becoming regular Bafana senior stars. If the likes of Mofokeng and Adams play Cosafa and Chan and the Afcon and World Cup qualifiers, they will be better equipped at major tournaments.

It is worth noting that none of South Africa’s junior national teams have qualified for major tournaments in recent years and it is not coincidence that the SA Football Association has appointed full-time coaches to those sides.

Also worrying is that most Premiership teams — though few exceptions have invested heavily in this — cut corners when it comes to sports science, data analysis and infrastructure development like their own training facilities. Some clubs cut corners when it comes to these important trends in football, where players can be helped to improve using data and analytics. Some have one doctor, one masseuse, one physical trainer, one goalkeeper coach and one assistant coach to manage a group of more than 30 players.

In March last year, Siphamandla Mtolo collapsed and died at a Richards Bay FC training session were allegedly there was no doctor present. Last year in December Swallows failed to honour two League fixtures against Sundowns and Golden Arrows after a dispute with the players regarding salaries.

Even Bafana is found wanting when it comes to their technical team, which is thin when compared with other nations at Afcon.

Journalists in Ivory Coast heard that a small country like Mauritania came to Afcon with their own chef because diet is important for players. Most teams came with bigger squads and Bafana left four standby players at home, allegedly due to financial considerations.

Coach Hugo Broos said after the tournament that he would like to add more people to his technical and backroom staff but it is not top of his priorities.

I know, from speaking to players and officials, that most coaches in the PSL don't put enough an emphasis on individual training to improve players. I once spoke to an official who told me the first area clubs cut when doing cost-containment is scouting and they rely on agents to recruit players.

PSL clubs do not have collaborations or exchange programmes with other teams from different regions on the continent. It is highly doubtful there is a PSL club that has a good scouting network in West Africa, which has produced exceptional players exported to Europe.

SA has also neglected amateur football and specific coaching education for that level of developmental football, which is where raw players are formed and found. Football takes place at Local Football Association (LFA) level but there are serious concerns that there are not enough qualified coaches at that level.

It was satisfying to see Bafana do well at Afcon against all the odds, but their success will not be sustainable if SA continues at this rate.

After all, we know what Einstein once said about insanity.

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