Football itself will kick out the egos and the arrogance
THE PALL of gloom, which we know all too well, has again descended upon South African football – and it hovers there, like a dark, heavy, angry rain cloud.
After a 2-0 defeat to Senegal in Polokwane on Friday, Bafana Bafana will be watching the 2018 World Cup in Russia on their television screens. Football in South Africa is rather accustomed to the feeling of being left behind.
Since re-admission to Fifa, and the first international match in 1992, the SA national football team has only managed to qualify for the planet’s most prestigious sporting event on two occasions: 1998 and 2002. Don’t count 2010 – South Africa hosted and did not have to go through the qualifying phase. For a country with the best facilities on the continent, able to call on some outstanding natural football talent and a rich, thriving football league, it’s an embarrassing and disastrous statistic. Needless to say, as usual, myopically, the response has been: fire the coach.
Of course, Stuart Baxter has to carry the can – the buck stops with him – but Bafana’s problems go far, far deeper than just the coach. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, they could get just about anyone – José, Pep, Conté, Hunty, Tinks or even Benni – but, until the basic issues hindering the sport at all levels are attended to, this insane hamster wheel will keep turning.
It starts right at the very top, where, without doubt, the administration of the game desperately requires fresh, innovative leadership. Football needs to be pointed in a different direction, and placed on a path that benefits the game in general and not only an elite coterie (and doesn’t that also remind you of the prevailing state of the nation).
Let’s not even talk about last week’s administrative balls-up around the availability of Andile Jali.
The players, too, share more than their fair share of blame. They love comfort zones; they refuse to be shaken from the ease of the average and the ordinary, which is why, as individuals, and as a team, their game stagnates.
It reaches a certain level and stays there. Our best footballers need to get to bigger and better clubs and they need to constantly challenge themselves – in this way, they can, as we see from many other African sides, be more technically equipped, be tactically more composed and disciplined, and improve their overall game management skills for the step up to international football.
Those are just two areas of concern. I’m sure there are many more. But my two cents is about something more intangible. In literature, it’s called hubris – the literary device that accentuates the tragic flaw at the heart of a character. In a word: arrogance.
And, always, in any book or play, it’s this weakness or failing that leads to the downfall.
Much as in Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel Things Fall Apart, where the main protagonist, Okonkwo, is destined for tragedy: “Only the really great men in the clan were able to do this. Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and he saw himself taking the highest title in the land.” The extract, in essence, is a metaphor for Bafana – always deluding itself about the real state of their circumstances. In short, football rewards hard work, diligent application, attention to detail in planning and preparation, the willingness to put your body and soul on the line and, above all, it prizes humility.
I was at a function last week, listening to Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp – and, when he was asked about egos and arrogance in football, he replied: “Football will kick them out. Because this is a sport you cannot fool – it will pay you back. Put in and you will get out. Coat yourself with arrogance and it will spit in your face.”
The big question South African football needs to ask itself is: “Are we really as good as what we think we are? And then it has to answer the question with brutal honesty. Can SA do this? Or will it, like Okonkwo, continue to deceive itself. Or, like the ostrich, keep burying its head in the sand?
So, as SA football deals with the ominous dark cloud overhead, the sport is again at a crossroads. It has, of course, been here many, many times before. In the past, it just refused to budge, simply staring, brazenly, boastfully, off into the distance. Now, it’s decision time again. Change, choose a different path, or arrive here again in four years’ time?
SA football’s hubris is a lot like Narcissus – it keeps looking at itself, obsessively admiring its own reflection, which is why, like the character in Greek mythology, it is slowly starving to death.