Why the sports minister and most sports fans have it completely wrong.
“S ome people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly uttered these words nearly 30-years ago, yet his sentiments have lost none of their relevance. In the same week that a five-year-old learner lost his life after falling into a pit latrine at his school, the big news emanating out of the Government ministry was a reaction to the dismal performance of the national soccer team.
South Africa lost 3-1 to Nigeria to drop out of the African Nations Championship, and this spurred a mad rant by our Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. “We saw a bunch of losers – unbearable, useless individuals. We must never wake up to this. We indeed have a crisis of monumental proportions, this tournament has proved. That mediocrity we saw yesterday is disgraceful.” He even singled out the young goalkeeper, who was close to tears: “I l ove Moeneeb Josephs, but I don’t know what was going on with him... I’ m sure his mother was there, how was he going to explain to her. It was a total disgrace that performance.”
The irony, of course, is that as the Sports Minister, Mbalula should shoulder much of the blame for the result. Even though he is not explicitly calling the shots at SAFA (South African Football Association), he has direct oversight of the association and what is being done to advance the most popular sport in South Africa.
Imagine the CEO of a large multinational calling a press conference to announce the dismal performance of one of the company’s divisions: “Those guys in operations – what a bunch of losers. They are unbearable, useless individuals. And the operational director, Greg Jones, I don’t know what is going on with him. Greg, you know I love you, but your performance is a total disgrace.” This would never happen in real life because ultimately the CEO would be sealing his own fate. Especially when it came to light later that the CEO had been throwing wild parties (read R100m on awards dinners) instead of giving the struggling division the resources that i t so desperately needed. It seems the same rules don’t apply when it comes to our incompetent politicians.
What makes Mbalula’s scathing comments even more remarkable is the fact that barely two months ago Bafana Bafana defeated Spain, the current World and European Champions, in an international friendly. After the match, praise gushed from all corners of the country. Newly appointed SAFA President Danny Jordaan said: “Congratulations to all of you, you all made us proud... Let us continue with this progression and it is only playing against the best that we can know how far we have progressed.” Even President Zuma chimed in: “Thank you very much for this performance, well done. It was absolutely wonderful watching you, the country is very happy. We are all proud of you.” Zuma led a huge delegation of dignitaries – including Fikile Mbalula – to the Bafana Bafana dressing room to personally thank and shake the hands of each and every member of the team.
So what happened over the past two months to justify such a drastic turnaround in attitude? The answer is very little. The problem is not in the perceived on-and-off performance of the team but rather in our own minds. The problem is that we don’t properly understand the role of randomness in sporting events. In fact, we don’t properly understand the role of randomness in general.
Sports minister Fikile Mbalula