Unhappy Feet: The Sad State of South African Soccer

No one was expecting the Mamelodi Sundowns, South Africa’s best professional soccer team, to beat FC Barcelona, the world renowned Spanish team packed with legends like Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

The two teams met up for a friendly this week in Johannesburg, where the Sundowns suffered a 3-1 defeat in a game characterized by sloppy defense and several missed chances by the home team.

But as the cold morning light dawned over the home team’s loss, many local sports fans were agonizing over a question that has long plagued the Rainbow Nation: Why can’t South Africa — a sports-mad country which regularly punches above its weight in rugby, cricket, running and swimming — compete with the best in the world’s most popular sport?

Sports science professors Yoga Coopoo and Chris Fortuin, both of the University of Johannesburg, engaged in some post-game second-guessing with VOA.

Fortuin, who teaches sports management and is a former professional player, says South African soccer has not gotten any better since the nation hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He characterized domestic football as inconsistent, a “pendulum swinging in different directions” — and said the South African Football Association (SAFA) has challenges in terms of “talent identification.”

Coopoo, who heads the university’s department of sport and movement studies, said the main deficiencies are in the areas of management, the “science” of football and a youth development program he says is almost nonexistent.

“You could see the wide chasm between South Africa and Barcelona, the methods of play and how easily Barcelona played during the game, whereas South Africa was really chasing their tails in most cases,” he said.

Cape Town-based sportswriter Antoinette Muller has spilled a lot of ink over South Africa’s Premier Soccer League. She is not happy with the level of play in the league. “This season was absolutely shocking,” she told VOA. “It was the worst, in terms of average goals per game in about a decade and a half. It really was absolutely horrific.”

Why that’s the case, she’s not sure, although she thinks the PSL’s status as “best in Africa” might have something to do with it.

“If you look at what some of the former players are saying, it’s an issue of a lot of the guys at a lot of the top teams, they’re big fish in a very small pond,” she said. “So in South Africa, they’re paid well, they’re heroes and they are amazing, but they’re not willing to put in the extra work to go beyond that.”

If South Africa is to start challenging for World Cups, says Fortuin, it will have to invest in teaching football skills to young athletes.

“If you look at Germany, after 2000, when they didn’t qualify, when they lost dismally in the European championships, the European Nations’ Cup, they went on a 10-year program,” he said. “They established 44 football-playing schools, and they made a prediction that they’ll go and win the World Cup on another continent, which they did in 2014.”

South Africa’s national team won’t be anywhere near the World Cup in Russia, which begins in mid-June. But the crowd of more than 85,000 who packed the FNB stadium on a cold Wednesday night made one thing clear: South Africans want to see the team back on the international stage.