The South African national under-23 team is currently in Senegal participating in the CAF Under-23 championship, and so far have fared reasonably well. When the team lost their first game to the hosts, panic buttons were already being pressed by the majority of the fans and to be fair, some sections of the media. The cry was ‘we did not suspend the league for this’ and ‘Da Gama better make sure we go to Rio’.
Of course this anxiety stemmed from the fact that only the top three finishers in this tournament will have passage to the 2016 Olympics to be held in Rio De Janeiro, and losing the first match is not exactly how to convince us you have what it takes. Since then, the team has made great strides and has gone on to beat both Zambia and Tunisia to comfortably book a place at the table for four alongside Senegal, Nigeria, and Algeria. Fears of non-qualification for Rio have suddenly disappeared, and the team looks like it can even go on to win the this particular tournament.
Of course all we need is to finish in third place, meaning even if we lose the semi-final we still have the 3rd/4th-place play-off to look forward to. But we don’t want it to come to that.
All of this though, has to be credited to a team that looks well balanced and has the capability to go very far if allowed. The reason I say “if allowed” is that so many times we’ve seen good players from our age groups fall by the way side and never to be heard of again. This team should just be allowed to graduate to the senior team and allow to blossom there. I’m not saying the players that are already in Bafana Bafana should be discarded. I’m just saying we should not break up this team of talented youngsters that has given us a peek into the future. And I must say it looks very good.
My fear is that the same thing that happened to the Sydney 2000 team will happen to this bunch. Although the likes of Benni McCarthy went on to become the star of the senior team, not many others can say the same. Besides, Benni had already been to the World Cup with the senior team at the time. The Sydney team, the only one to beat Brazil (which featured the likes of Ronaldinho), never really made the transition to Bafana Bafana. It took Benni in an interview with a newspaper after his international exile to bring back Matthew Booth into the setup. When I sat down with the lanky former defender himself last year, he spoke of how he regrets that guys like Abram Nteo, Daniel Matsau, and Patrick Mbuthu never got an opportunity at senior level.
These are some of the players he felt were good enough. After all, why waste your time and resources developing them, only to toss them aside like that? We never had continuity in our football. Perhaps if we had done the right things then, we wouldn’t be speaking of the subsequent free fall of Bafana Bafana today.
I remember the Spanish team that was there at the time had Xavi and Carles Puyol, and many others that we know today. We all know how that story ended. We should follow suit.
The good thing is that all the national team coaches at all levels are the same. Molefi Ntseki (U-17), Thabo Senong (U-20), Owen Da Gama(U-23) all report to Shakes Mashaba and seem to handle all the national teams together. If years down the line players like Athenkosi Dlala, Katlego Mohamme, Kobamelo Kodisang, and Khanyisa Mayo are nowhere to be seen, Ntseki should be held accountable. The same goes for Da Gama.
He should engineer the graduation of players like Gift Motupa, Keegan Dolly, Phakamani Mahlambi, Tebogo Moerane, Denwin Farmer, Menzi Masuku and Abubbaker Mobara to Bafana Bafana as soon as possible. If this does not happen and we allow these guys to slip through the cracks like generations before them, then we might just find ourselves with heads in hands yet again in the future. “Vision 2022” will become “Vision 2030”. Let’s stop the ripple effect NOW. Let’s right the wrongs of the past.