Kaizer Chiefs’ under-17 right-winger, Katlego Mashego, looks nothing like a footballer. He is short, has small shoulders, a narrow chest and skinny legs that seem as if they can barely kick a ball. But when he puts on the club’s gold jersey, he transforms into a potent attacker, beating defenders with clever feints and speed. Labelled the team’s star player by his coach, the former Bafana Bafana midfielder Arthur Zwane, Mashego represents everything that is right with development football at the moment.
The 16-year-old was chosen for the provisional South African under-17 squad out of 240 promising footballers who featured at the South African Football Association (Safa) under-17 Inter-Provincial Tournament held at the Nike Training Centre in Soweto between 1 and 5 April. All nine provinces, including the academies of Wits University, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns, were part of the spectacle. And the talent on show will give South African football administrators and fans something to look forward to in the future.
The tournament forms part of Safa president Danny Jordaan’s drive to overhaul youth football in a country where the game at development level has been neglected in recent years. This is evident in that the last time Safa hosted this very same tournament was in 2010.
Maqsood Chenia, one of three South African under-17 selectors who were scouting players in Soweto, said the tournament presented him a base from which to judge players who might have the talent not only to enter his team but also to become regulars for Bafana Bafana. “The senior team is forced to choose from a limited bunch. That’s why tournaments like this will be very forthcoming for selection.”
Provinces disrupted by poor preparation
Chenia was pleased with the talent seen at the tournament, especially that of the academy sides. However, he was concerned about a few provinces that did not perform too well, including Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. “As Safa, we should be concerned that we are not doing enough in those rural areas.”
He explained that the selectors felt a South African under-17 B-team should be put together so that talented individuals from the weaker provinces could be selected. “We would give provinces like the Eastern Cape an indication that two or three of their players are selected so they can work on those players. We have to pick 20 players from about 240. That’s less than 10%. So the overflow must be taken into consideration.”
Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal claimed to have talented teams, but their performances were lacklustre because of poor preparation. Gauteng had problems assembling their squad a day before the tournament began. KwaZulu-Natal coach Doctor Mkhonza said his team did not have enough time to train, having only assembled a day before departing for Johannesburg. “We didn’t have a single day to prepare. We just drove up here and played.”
His team’s left-winger, Ncebo Nala, said the players did not know each other before leaving for the tournament, which affected their performance. “We all met each other for the first time on Monday [two days before the tournament]. We were picked up in Pietermaritzburg and came [to Johannesburg] on Tuesday. We drew the first match against the Eastern Cape because we didn’t know each other.”
Nala, who has been picked for the provisional South African under-17 side, said the problem could come from the difficulty in bringing together players who lived far from one another. “It’s a problem because some of us are from Mtubatuba and ‘Maritzburg and others are from Newcastle and Durban.”
Despite being an academy team, Kaizer Chiefs also had to deal with administrative problems just before the tournament began. Zwane said they were going to register players born in 1997, but Safa enforced a rule stating that only boys born after 1998 could participate. They did not have much time to quickly scout for players. “We could only look for players in Gauteng because it wasn’t going to be easy for us to go out and scout nationally. So we had to look for players who were doing well for their respective teams.”
But Chenia said the teams had no excuse for their poor preparation as they were informed about the tournament months before it started. “When the tournament was well advertised, why weren’t the teams prepared on time? What are their excuses? If there are administrative problems they need to be sorted out.”
Academies have the advantage
Provincial coaches argued that having academies participate in the tournament did not give their teams a competitive advantage nor did it give their players an opportunity to be considered for the South African team.
Mkhonza said that his team did not stand a chance at winning the tournament against the likes of Chiefs, to whom they lost the semi-final 3-0. The difference, he said, was that academy players had been training every day for a number of years and they knew each other really well, whereas the provincial sides lacked training, competitive match experience and rapport among players.
When the tournament was drawn up, Chenia said, the idea of including academies was a concern. However, their inclusion would allow provinces to gauge where they were in terms of their development. “Teams like the Eastern Cape, which lost 5-0, would go back and realise they needed to do a lot to improve their game. If the tournament only had the provinces, they’d never get to know where they were.”
Academies had a great support structure that could help players ease their way into the professional setup, Zwane pointed out. Those who came out of the Kaizer Chiefs academy would have been honed to such a point that they would be able to sign professional or development contracts with the club by the time they turned 17.
Being in an academy, Mashego said he and his teammates developed quicker than most players. His team trained every day and experienced coaches were on hand to refine their technique and mental abilities.
At under-17 level, coaches are trying their best to prepare the boys for the reserve team. “All of us want to get to that reserve side at an early age so that you don’t struggle going into the first team,” said Mashego. “Current Premier Soccer League (PSL) players, the young boys, they get signed by clubs and when they go to the first team they struggle.”
Mashego said that with the top-class training they received, he and his teammates believed they would be capable of playing in Europe someday. “We all want to play for Kaizer Chiefs but we see the club as a stepping stone to Europe.”
WATCH: SAFA president Danny Jordaan speaks on the importance of youth development football
Football education starts at a very young age
On the football pitch, Mashego plays with the confidence of a professional in his prime. His passing is crisp, his first touch is effective and he dribbles with purpose. What is extraordinary, and rare for a young footballer, is that he transfers this confidence to his life off the field. His side may have lost the tournament final 3-0 to a well-oiled Wits University, but the result has not diminished the faith Mashego has in himself. He still believes he will sign his first professional contract with Kaizer Chiefs within the next two years.
He is proof that playing from a very young age will bring out the best in a footballer, he believes – he started when he was just three years old. At the age of eight, he joined Wits University’s academy before heading off to Palmeiros Academy three years later. He joined Chiefs nine months ago, and will be one of the youngest players in their under-19 squad when they travel to Cape Town for the Metropolitan Under-19 Premier Cup later this month. “I don’t think it is good for a player just to start when he’s 13 because at that age you’re expected to have some of the basics as a player.”
Chenia said that at age nine, children were still learning the game and their skills should be honed in this period through participation, interaction and regional tournaments. But by age 12, the learning eventually stopped and all the knowledge would then be put to use.
Talented boys like Mashego could enter teams that were a few years above their age group because they grew quicker today than players did when he was young, Zwane said. “The most important thing is they develop well, they know the basics of the game and personalise their game while they’re still young.”
A good development structure ensured players rose through the ranks together, he added. By the time they were full professionals they would have played with each other numerous times. Zwane himself had honed his skills as an under-10 player in the Chappies League before signing up for Jomo Cosmos’ under-19s many years later. At 17, he got his first contract with the senior team, which started a career that included appearances for clubs such as Orlando Pirates, Santos and Kaizer Chiefs. By rising through each age group, he got to befriend a number of players. “There’s a lot of players from that development structure that we played against. We knew each other. And most of us were also picked by [Ephraim] ‘Shakes’ Mashaba for the national team. So we grew up together.”
He said it would be ideal to have more national tournaments and leagues for children between the ages of 12 and 16 to create a similar structure and a strong pool of players who could potentially play for senior teams at club and international levels. “We need to have a league and involve the clubs from a young age, where, for instance, Kaizer Chiefs can play Amazulu in Durban. They’ll get exposure and experience, and they’ll learn more about the game while they are still young. If you can make sure they play a lot of games and get the right coaching then I don’t see us going wrong.”
In his first public statement as president of Safa last September, Jordaan implied that South Africa did not have a large pool of young players. He pointed out that Germany played about 80 000 junior matches over a weekend; Spain played 30 000 and France had 40 000. South Africa did not come close to those numbers. “If you find 3 000 matches in South Africa, you’re doing well. That’s the problem,” he said.
But Jordaan is already working on that issue. The 2010 FIFA World Cup Legacy Trust, which he helped to set up, will provide the funds for development tournaments like the under-17 championship. FIFA put aside R450-million ($42.6-billion) for football development in South Africa. Already, R17.1-million has been ploughed into the establishment of Safa under-13 and under-15 boys’ and girls’ leagues in 311 local football associations around the country, with regional and provincial championships tied to them. These leagues and championships are meant to develop players who can compete in the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Jordaan’s youth development focus has a clear goal: to make South Africa one of the top three countries in Africa and to place them in the top 20 on FIFA’s world rankings. But to get there, a number of improvements have to be made. Jordaan mentioned one of his ideas at the launch of the Safa under-17 Inter-Provincial Tournament.
He said PSL clubs should focus on youth development instead of buying players. However, he conceded that many of the clubs lacked the funds to run youth academies. “Some of them will say they don’t have the financial resources and that’s it. If you look at how many PSL clubs actually have sponsors, you will find that many of them play without a sponsor. It could also be a revenue problem.”
However, Zwane said this should not be an excuse for clubs to avoid setting up youth structures and that they should look for funding if they were financially constrained. “If you are talking about development it’s supposed to start with the youth.”
In an ESPN blog, South African sports writer Firdose Moonda said that while Jordaan’s implementation of nationwide age-group leagues was admirable, his aim to make South Africa a top 20 team would not be realised if there were not enough skilled coaches at youth development level to ensure children were guided properly.
According to Jordaan, there is only one coach for every 2 000 players in South Africa, which is a major concern for Safa.
Moonda suggested that the game be reintroduced to the country’s top sporting schools, which had the best facilities. She added that teams should tour regularly and play against good opposition as a way to continuously measure themselves against the best. There had to be a pipeline that led exceptionally talented players to academies – and to be contracted to clubs – so that they were constantly learning and viewed football as a viable career option, she added.
Talent scouting should be considered an important aspect of development, Chenia said after noting that there were no scouts from professional clubs at the Inter-Provincial Tournament. Currently, there was no scouting programme in South Africa, which he said was denting football development. “If you look at developing countries of the world, scouting is a key factor in their game. The first world countries in football will not allow any talent to go through the sieve. Yet, we are losing so much of talent year in and year out.”
He added that a lot of money was spent on the Inter-Provincial Tournament but without scouts looking for players, not just the talent was wasted but so were the resources.
South African players are too small
Mashego may have made it on to the South African under-17 provisional squad, but for him to compete at international level he will have to refine the technical skills he already has to make up for what he lacks in physical stature.
This is not a dilemma only he faces. According to Chenia, the problem pervades all levels of the South African game. “We’ve got a huge problem in terms of size,” he said, when talking about playing against other African teams. “The physical aspect of opposition like Nigeria or Ghana is awed.”
He said that with physicality being a greater feature of the game than ever before, South African players would have to rely heavily on technical skills. He referred to Spain as an example of a team with small players who used their technical abilities to be world beaters. “We need to grasp the approach of Lionel Messi and the approach of Spain to overcome our physical constraints with sheer mobility and speed.”
He admitted that a lot of work needed to be done on the under-17 team, which had failed to make an impression in the last two tournaments in which it had participated. That meant Mashego and his national under-17 teammates would have to have longer training camps, more rigorous drills and lengthier playing seasons, Chenia said, to ensure they qualified for next year’s CAF African under-17 Championship in Niger.
Mashego is eager to work hard for his success, an attitude he expresses clearly on the field. “At the moment I would say that I have the ability [to succeed] because at Kaizer Chiefs we train at a high intensity every day so that when we go into a game we don’t struggle. And I think that helps me as a player to go anywhere in the world to compete,” he said.
– This article was previously published on Media Club South Africa.com on 17 April 2014.