The Evolution of the Office
hand on his arm tattooed with the crazy stories of a footballer’s life. And Fish seems more at peace than ever before, having found his faith and what also appears to be a new purpose in life.
“I look at my career and I would love to see myself raising money and giving some kid a chance to reach his dream,” he says, comparing his desire to the monumental charity work that Gary Player has done.
“Everything that bears Gary Player’s name is of worth. He epitomises what we’re striving for in South Africa. How you play determines how long your career lasts, but how you carry yourself determines how much longer it will last when you’re done playing. Gary Player conducted himself a lot better than I did as a player. I was a bit naughty.”
Inevitably the conversation turns towards South African football, and specifically the state of the national team, Bafana Bafana. As you read this, another FIFA World Cup will have been completed. Another one without the South African national football team in attendance.
Since readmission to international football in 1993, Bafana Bafana have only twice managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup – in 1998 and 2002. In the 2010 showpiece they didn’t have to qualify as they were the host country.
Even a man as passionate about South African football as Fish has to compose himself as he considers this, the most perplexing and continually frustrating question in all of South African sport: Why are Bafana Bafana so bad so much of the time? “There is a mental block somewhere,” he says. “You can’t think the problem is technical. It’s got to be mental. It’s disappointing.”
Fish points to the lacking mental fortitude of the players by using an example from his own playing days, when the national team won the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations and rose to 16th on the world rankings.
“I was chatting to an ex-teammate of mine about this. In 1995 with Orlando Pirates we played in the African Cup of Champions final. We played against ASEC Mimosa in the Ivory Coast. I’ll never forget, there were about 60,000 people in that stadium and we probably had 11 of our own fans there. When we won 1-0, there were over 59,000 silent fans. You can’t describe it to anyone. That euphoria of silencing nearly 60,000 people – that’s another aspect of mental strength.”
Looking at the current set-up, Fish seems equally perplexed as the rest of South Africa’s football-loving fans. “We’ve been back in world football since 1992. We’ve had something like 20 coaches [the number is actually 17] for our national team, and probably more than 400 players to represent the national team since then. The last World Cup we qualified for was 2002. We’re not going anywhere!” he exclaims.
The coaching turnaround at Bafana Bafana amounts to a national team coach every year and a half over the last 26 years of readmission to international football. In this time, Bafana Bafana has had an average world ranking of 52nd. The outlying high was that 16th place in 1996, and the low has been 109th. The team’s all-time record against other nations adds up to 401 matches played, winning only 182.
At a player level, it’s staggering to consider that since 1992 only one player has reached 100 caps or more for Bafana Bafana – Aaron Mokoena. In comparison, the country’s rugby Springboks have had five players reach 100 caps or more: Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, John Smit, Jean de Villiers and Percy Montgomery. And they did so from a later start, with Montgomery the first after making his Springbok debut in 1999.
For many former players, it’s symptomatic of South African footballers getting far too comfortable with mediocrity at their home clubs to want to excel at national level, never mind travel overseas to ply their trade.
In an interview with ENCA, the great Senegalese footballer El Hadji Diouf said as much. “I spoke to Percy Tau and asked him what he was still doing in the PSL? The boy is good enough to play for any team in the world, including Real Madrid or any of England’s top sides. The boy is quality.”
Tau played in the Mandela Centenary Cup showpiece between Sundowns and Barcelona at the FNB Stadium in May. Nothing summed up the general mediocrity in the local game more than a line by the commentator when a Sundowns goal made it 3-1 to Barcelona (the eventual final score).
“That goal has made the score line more respectable,” he said.
You wonder if Mark Fish would have ever felt like he’d achieved something respectable by losing 3-1?