THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

England's next opponents, South Africa, have problems that go further than the football pitch, says  John Perlman

By the time Benedict McCarthy set off for the African under-20 championships in Morocco last month, he had just seven South African Premier league games under his belt. By the end of the tournament in which his five goals had taken South Africa to the final – they lost 1-0 to the hosts – the young striker from Cape Town’s “coloured” townships was having to get his brain round a bewildering array of choices: Ajax? Feyenoord? Milan?

After a visit to Holland with his agent, a shrewd South African magazine publisher named Rob Moore, McCarthy accepted Ajax’s offer of a five-year contract. He will make a lot of money. So will Seven Stars, the middling first division side that gave McCarthy his first real start, before he moved on loan to Premier League team Cape Town Spurs. Who saw it fit to use him just seven times.

On the one hand the McCarthy fairytale reflects the growing appeal of South African players for European clubs, a progress that has seen Lucas Radebe at Leeds United, Mark Fish and Eric Tinkler at Lazio and Cagliari, and defenders Sizwe Motaung and David Nyathi signed by Tenerife.

On the other, you might wonder why a young player of such obviously thrilling talent has stirred so little interest in his own footballing world. That McCarthy was getting any kind of showing on the South African stage owes much to the proddings and promptings of Moore, a man who would feel sold short if anyone described him as pushy.

There are plenty of other McCarthys out there. And if South Africa is to build something that will grow on the country’s 1996 African Cup of Nations triumph, then the people who run the game will have to make sure that they are found more often than is presently the case.

It’s probably a fitting thing that South Africa’s match against England takes place at Old Trafford. The resentment that many fans around Britain have felt towards Manchester United – over-rated, overpaid, oversold – is in many ways mirrored by the hostility the South African national team have faced around the continent of Africa.

Objectively, South Africa’s footballers should be better placed than any to bring Africa’s immense potential to fruition on the World Cup stage. While the country’s national professional league attracts sponsorship in excess of R39-million (roughly £5.5 million), Cameroon’s players are still waiting for their bonus money from Italia ‘90. While South Africa’s under-23 squad enjoy backing worth millions in their bid to qualify for the 2000 Olympics, the senior teams of other countries have had to withdraw from the Cup of Nations because they can’t afford the travel costs.

If only we had the resources... that has invariably been the response when anyone asks when Africa will finally make that indelible mark on world football. But South Africa’s experience offers a cautionary tale – money can cause more problems than it solves if the game doesn’t have a long-term plan towards which the cash can be channelled.

Football’s central figure during the first months of 1997 was a man with little or no interest in the game. Benjamin Pickard, a tough-tackling supreme court judge, was appointed by Sports Minister Steve Tshwete to investigate allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the South African Football Association (SAFA). The dirt wasn’t terribly hard to uncover, despite burglars ransacking the Pickard commission’s offices just before the release of the judges report. (The computer disks they nicked were backups.)

Judge Pickard found that SAFA president Solomon ‘Stix’ Morewa had sold out to an Irish-based marketing company “virtually every asset it had to earn money”. In return for a modest fixed fee, the company which was called Awesome Sports International – you’d think the name might have given some advance warning – cashed in on all ticket sales, advertising sponsorships and TV rights. One report said ASI had transferred some R28-million into its European accounts – SAFA’s total annual budget rarely tops R10-million.

If the deal sounded demented, it had a certain logic. Pickard found that just before the contract was sealed, ASI boss Brian Mahon gave Morewa a R500 000 loan. And there was more. A local company, Foodcorp, which was seeking renewal of a three-year contract with SAFA, made the president a present of a Mercedes Benz worth more than R400 000. Morewa was found to have paid himself a performance bonus R45 000 – and then paid himself the same bonus again. And the shabbiest of all, he and other SAFA members were found to have dipped liberally into the organisation’s education trust which was meant to fund the studies of promising players.

Morewa provided some moments of low comedy, before setting off into the sunset with a handsome package that included, rather oddly, another bonus. “I’m not a man of considerable means,” he said. “I can’t fly to London on holiday. I can’t take my children to Eton. I’m sitting here struggling.”

Morewa was earning R33,000 a month in office. South Africa’s fledgling players union is demanding – and not yet getting – minimum wage of R2,500 a month for premier league footballers. And any hopes that priorities will shift with new leadership at the top are cautious to say the least.

Just days after the Pickard report effectively found the SAFA leadership incapable of controlling its greedy president, the executive voted themselves a R15,000 a man bonus for services rendered during the Cup of Nations – which was a year earlier. They voted to retain ties with ASI – and the first step taken was to clinch a lucrative friendly with Holland, to be played just days before the country’s decisive World Cup match against Zambia. And despite the judge warning that the marketing of the game should not be signed over to foreign companies again, a deal has just been struck with an American company to promote South Africa’s bid for the 2006 World Cup.

This sense that you can’t clean out a stable just by shooting one horse is reminiscent of South African football’s last major scandal, when league supremo Abdul Bhamjee was found guilty of theft totalling R7-4 million. Bhamjee served some time in Pretoria Central Prison, but the money was never recovered because football’s bosses made no effort to do so.

Still people will forget about the national sports ministry’s complaint that there is “no discernible development programme for football and none whatsoever for coaching”, if the national team successfully qualifies for France in 1998. A 2-1 away win over Zaire has improved that prospect and two final home fixtures against Zambia and the Congo, could finally clinch things. The prospect of playing in France will then prompt a year-long frenzy of marketing and money, launches and lunches. And in many ways that excitement will be justified, given the massive strides that South African football has made since its international readmission in 1992.

The team that England will face at Old Trafford are rather more than “a very determined bunch of lads” – Kevin Keegan’s summation after national coach Clive Barker asked him to conduct a training session. They might even do rather well in France. But then what? The country is still stuck with a dire shortage of decent coaches – most of the men coaching Premier League clubs have been playing musical benches for ages, a situation of severe inbreeding which an early nineties fad of calling the usual suspects ‘technical directors’ did little to disguise.

McCarthy’s recognition in Europe will probably see him fast-tracked into the national team, but there are others who will be lost before they can be found. And fresh injections of money won’t solve that, unless the cash is scrupulously channelled into developing the game, and rewarding the people who play it.

From WSC 124 June 1997. What was happening this month

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