By Peter Alegi | June 13th, 2012 4 Comments
In the wake of Pitso Mosimane’s firing as Bafana Bafana head coach, there seems to be general agreement in South African football circles that a plan is needed to develop the local game constructively and sustainably.
On this blog, Mohlomi Maubane recently argued in favor of a German model that synchronizes the interests of the FA, the national team, and of professional clubs. “It is by virtue of young players being trained well that the German national team, and any other national team, can realise its full potential,” added Ted Dumitru and Sipho “King K” Kekana over at maximalfootball.com. “Lack of technical education in this vital aspect made many nations, including SA, compete without an identity and the results have been disastrous,” the two experts point out.
On June 9-10, 2012, the national finals of the under 15 boys’ Manchester United Premier Cup provided some clues about what lies ahead for South African football. At the Nike Football Training Centre in Klipspruit, Soweto, Ajax defeated SuperSport United in the final (2-1) to qualify for the global finals in China in July. The rest of the field featured Orlando Pirates, Izichwe FC, Bidvest Wits, School of Excellence, Diambars, and Mamelodi Sundowns.
According to observers’ accounts, most teams at the Premier Cup fielded sides of tall, strong boys indulging in well-rehearsed kick-and-rush football. Two exceptions stood out: Izichwe FC and School of Excellence. The case of Izichwe, an extraordinary program based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, illustrates how making highly technical footballers out of promising teenagers requires not only financial resources and qualified coaches, but also time and patience.
Izichwe distinguishes itself in a number of ways from the vast majority of youth programs in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. Founded in 2010, when my family had the privilege of being welcomed into the Izichwe clan, the academy got its name from the regiment (ibutho) of Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the founder of the Zulu kingdom. It operates on a shoestring budget compared to the PSL youth teams in the Premier Cup. It is a not-for-profit organization in which the parents and sponsors — both local and international — actively participate in shaping the sporting and educational development of each youngster.
After intense daily training sessions, the Izichwe boys, many of whom come from humble backgrounds, remain on the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus for a meal and to complete their homework before returning home for the night. Developing responsible citizens is considered just as important as training future members of Bafana Bafana. From a football standpoint, Thabo Dladla, Izichwe’s technical director, points out that while Izichwe coaches understand the importance of the team their priority is individual development. The coaching staff works assiduously to develop the technical, tactical, psychological, physical and emotional aspects of the boys’ game. Another important aspect of the Izichwe approach is the lack of an overbearing, ambitious owner, the kind of person who regularly exerts pressure on coaches and players to deliver trophies and obey the dictatorship of results.
For Bafana Bafana to improve, the quality of play in the Premier Soccer League — the richest league in Africa — must improve; but this cannot happen if football development programs fail to provide players under the age of 16 with the multiple skills required for successful professional careers. Izichwe shows the way forward. As we say in isiZulu: “Phambili!”.