Promoting the Game
“There is no crisis in SAFA” – that’s how the presentation by the South African Football Association (SAFA) to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Sport and Recreation begins. The words are reminiscent of an African National Congress (ANC) leader who famously said that there was no crisis in the ANC, and we all know how that scenario unfolded.
The presentation makes interesting reading, more so for the things that it doesn’t say than for what it actually says. The first-line item in the World Cup Legacy Fund expenditure is a fleet of buses and cars (which happen to be German sedans nogal!). To use the Kaizer Chiefs joke: “Buy one Zimbabwean and get one free”. Wouldn’t it have been better to buy a fleet of bakkies that are better suited for developmental work?
IN BLACK & WHITE | Pumulani Ncube
The report makes no mention of pertinent issues affecting the sport, like bringing back crowds to the stadiums, the performance of our national teams or, better still, projected financial statements indicating how SAFA’s financial position will break even to avoid the financial losses that seem to be occurring every odd year. More worrying is the fact that SAFA is starting to sell the family ‘jewels’ without outlining a sustainable turnaround strategy – a worrying sign for any business.
Maybe the solution to the challenges at SAFA lies with the various financial stakeholders of the sport. We know that the grant of R1.5-million per month given to teams in the league is a drop in the ocean for the top clubs, where some players command salaries of R400 000 per month. Therefore, the league and the team survive on sponsorship. I would argue that the lever to change the league has to be the sponsors of the league. Using a similar analogy in the banking sector, there was a time when there was uproar about bankers who received what were seen as obscene bonuses for great financial performance which resulted in above-normal returns for shareholders. Eventually, the microscope fell on the shareholders who were accepting the above-normal dividends without asking about the source and sustainability of these profits.
Similarly, in the football space, it is public knowledge that the sports channel paid R2-billion for the 5-year broadcast rights in respect of our premier league. The ‘Red Bank’ paid R500-million to be the anchor sponsor of the league and a mobile operator paid more than R1-billion to sponsor the two Soweto giants. Advertisers put money into vehicles from which they could get exposure, and, seemingly, they get lots of exposure from soccer. Based on our performance on the continent from the various age groups to the national teams and the continental club championship, South Africa ‘punches well below its weight’. Shouldn’t the sponsors be accountable for making investments in an entity that’s not giving a return to the country? The ‘Red Bank’ set a precedent regarding ‘socially responsible’ when it took the South African Rugby Union (SARU) to task on a separate issue.
I’m no marketing guru, but to have local premiership games that attract crowds of less than 5 000 is absurd. Some clubs consistently get 5 000 or less supporters per game – until the windfall from the fixtures against the big two clubs. This means that teams don’t make their money from gate takings, otherwise they would have been scrambling for supporters. Outside of advertising, the quality of the product has to be worthy for people to take out their R50 and spend additional money on transport to go to a game. I have no idea why there is no reserve league, which is standard practice in most jurisdictions. The reserve league would serve a double purpose: firstly, it would keep the reserve players fit, and, secondly, it would provide entertainment for the spectators. In addition, I have no idea why there is no entertainment before the game, at half-time and after the game.
The cycle is self-feeding, in that the players will be motivated to play better as a result of the additional support, and more young people will become exposed to the game and the players. In terms of sponsorship, the South African league is in the top three leagues on the continent, if not the best-sponsored league. But, in terms of performance, which matters the most, how good are we? Our performance in the Africa Cup of Nations is below average – South Africa won the trophy the first time it played in the tournament after readmission, at the next tournament we came second, and at the third tournament we came third. Thereafter, it has been downhill all the way, to a point where we have failed to qualify for the continental showpiece. In the Champions League, which is the continent’s premier club competition, South Africa has only one club which has a star for winning the continental showpiece.
Since Pirates took the silverware, I don’t think we’ve managed to put a single team into the final. The last look at the FIFA world rankings showed that South Africa was ranked 56 in the FIFA rankings, with the highest-ranked African country, the Ivory Coast, being ranked number 12. In the Confederation of African Football (CAF) rankings, South Africa is ranked at a lowly 9 on the African continent. In terms of exports to the English league, we have, at most, a handful of players playing in the English league – compare this with exports by other countries with less resources. Looking at the above, why do we believe we have a right to beat every team on the continent? Maybe we are not as good as we think we are?
What are the low-hanging solutions to the dilemma that befalls our soccer? Firstly, SAFA simply has to make the league more entertaining, must bring back the reserve or the U19 league, and should have other forms of entertainment at half-time and after the game, depending on the venue. The English league might not be the best in terms of quality, but nearly every game is sold out, with a significant portion of the sold tickets being season tickets (which is not possible in South Africa, where most clubs don’t even own stadiums and change their home ground on a regular basis).
Talent identification in soccer is not working, whereas in rugby and cricket we have 19-year-olds breaking into the national team. In soccer, we have 27-year-olds playing for Bafana for the first time. This is contrary to international trends, where 19-year-olds are breaking into national teams. However, part of the problem could be a result of age-cheating, which seems to be endemic in African football. Interestingly, some national associations have refused age verification using carbon dating, which would solve the age-cheating problem completely. Club versus country will always be an issue, but, if a country is playing well, any player selected would not miss the opportunity to play for the national team. Brazil is a perfect example of this. Any player chosen to don the national jersey will try by all means to honour the call-up, because the next chance is not guaranteed, since there’s always someone waiting in the wings. And, when was the last time you heard the Brazilian team going on strike for player bonuses?
People love a good and entertaining product. Proof of this is the 35 000 people who watched a potentially title-deciding, midweek and mid-month game between Kaiser Chiefs and Ajax Cape Town. For the size of the resources that we have – be it infrastructure, financial resources or the number of players – South Africa is ‘punching way below its weight’. Trying to qualify for Brazil via a technicality is simply not acceptable for South Africa. It’s about time that the various stakeholders – chiefly the sponsors – came to the party and sorted out the challenges in soccer.