Saturday 13 June ~

South Africa is a year away from hosting the 2010 World Cup. In WSC 56 (October 1991), John Pearlman reported on how the country was preparing to return to international competition after the lifting of the FIFA ban imposed in 1964

For people accustomed to opening the morning paper and reading “Woods-Seaman-Martyn-Dixon...” it's probably difficult to imagine getting excited at the announcement of a national squad. But throughout September, South African football fans and players will be talking about nothing else.

You see, we've never really had one before. There have been representative sides – President's XI v League XI, that sort of thing – and “national” teams that played against Tottenham and others in the 1960s. But you had to be white to play in those. And we did play against Rhodesia in the late 1970s, when no one else in the world would share a pitch with either of us.

National coach Geoff Butler – a former Football League defender – will soon select his first party of 24. Over the next month, he will shuffle the pack a bit, calling up new players and resting others for training sessions on the first two days of every week. On the fourth Monday of September, Butler should be able to walk up to his charges and say: "OK boys, we 're in."

At the same time, a delegation of officials will be winging their way back from Cairo with membership of the Confederation of African Football secured. That means a November date for our first ever real international, almost certainly against Cameroon, and a place for our clubs in the African Champions and Cup-Winners Cups. Hopefully it means a place in the December draw for the 1994 World Cup, even though FIFA – which expelled white South Africa in 1976 – will only ratify the CAF's decision next March.

South African soccer's exclusion from the world game has generally had the support of the game's administrators, players and fans, and attempts to organise rebel tours usually ran into political opposition – for a first-hand account, ring Jimmy Hill. Black players always say this was a sacrifice they were prepared to make. "There were people who died during this time," says Mike Ntombela, a skilful left-back who four years ago would have captained a national team. "What I did wasn't much."

But as the national squad gathers for the first time, a couple of extraordinary talents for whom the changes came just too late will surely feel a pang. There was Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, a smooth-moving, brooding midfielder who could pass like he was fitted with radar, and Nelson “Botsoso” Dladla, the nimblest of wingers (Botsoso is township slang for drainpipe trousers which is what Dladla's legs resembled). Dladla could reduce defences to shreds and stadiums to helpless laughter with his dribbling.

The late Seventies and early Eighties were their golden years. At least the greatest South African player of that era, Jomo Sono, will still play a part in the international future. Sono plays occasional games; the fact that he now
resembles George Foreman being offset by the fact that he owns a team. But nobody in South Africa has a shrewder eye for talent – Roy Wegerle had a spell at his club, Jomo Cosmos. He will start as Butler's assistant and will probably end up in charge.

The sight of Sono at the first training camp will do more than just remind the 24 young hopefuls of how precious their opportunity is. It should also call to mind the very best traditions of South African soccer: the verve and dash of Sono, Ntsoelengoe and Dladla, the players whose names they took as youngsters in countless games on township streets. Ironically, South African soccer will need a strong whiff of nostalgia as it steps out into the world. The game is currently low on self-esteem and wracked with problems. The most obvious of these are in administration.

South Africa's “Mr Soccer” used to be Abdul Bhamjee, the National Soccer League's PRO, a man whose taste in gold jewellery made Ron Atkinson look ascetic. Bhamjee was to gold watches what Imelda Marcos was to shoes. He would direct a torrent of words at anyone who looked vaguely in his direction – potential sponsors, journalists, passers-by – a mixture of stock expressions like "world-first" and "blockbuster" and phrases that nobody had ever heard before, like "all over the bar shouting".

All over the bar shouting – that is where a lot of other soccer officials were while Bhamjee blustered and bustled. He wasn't just South African soccer's praise-singer: he was also one of its principal architects. He managed to secure massive sponsorship for a sport that had hitherto lived on scraps. He was the fuel behind a dream that led to the building of soccer's first real home, an 80,000-seat ground on the edge of Soweto. The days of bowing and scraping to government officials for a place to play were past.

But Bhamjee, it seems, is history, too. Last month he was arrested and charged with fraud totalling R7.4 million, all of it soccer-related. The league's general manager, Cyril Kobus (a man who would say "Notification will be by means of human performance emanating from the GM's office” instead of "My secretary will call you") was arraigned on similar charges soon afterwards.

Others have stepped into the gap, but it's been a real body blow, coinciding as it does with real decline on the pitch. The fans have simply stopped coming – three years ago, upwards of 90,000 would pack into a stadium for cup ties, often staged as double-headers with two matches on a day. No more.

There is no single reason for the fall-off. Money in the townships is tighter than ever, so a fan who sees three dreary matches in a row starts picking his games. Add in the fact that he can see two local games on TV, plus a Sunday night highlights package, plus Everton v Aston Villa on Saturday, plus Inter v Sampdoria on Sunday (both live), plus highlights of Italian, Portuguese and Spanish first divisions midweek. The local game needs to be lot more compelling than it is.

The plunge in playing standards has been coming for some time. For a start a first division of 24 teams is way too big. Good players in poor teams lay off passes to team-mates who are yards and seconds behind and eventually stop bothering. Good players in good teams come up against hackers in empty stadiums and don't bother much, either.

The game has become hopelessly regionalised around Johannesburg with the big Durban clubs, Amazulu and Bush Bucks, crumbling around administrative incompetence. The same thing's happening in Bloemfontein, where the local team, Celtic, were playing the country's best football two years ago. There is a dearth of decent coaching – the same mediocre bunch have been playing musical chairs for years. And the season which runs from mid-January to the end of November, with four knock-out cups, is way too long. Add in the fact that players are unorganised and hopelessly exploited and it's a bit of a mess.

But enough of the bad and the ugly – South African soccer is still possessed of riches. For a start, the game is played everywhere and by everyone, and we will never have to lament the death of the street game, because it isn't going to die. The poorest rural villages will still find money for jerseys, split poles for posts, a truck with sagging axles for away games.

Where else would you see an amateur cup game between Sheffield Sunday and Argentina? We have Ashton Villa, Brains Milan and Rainbow Juventus. We have Oscar Hotspurs, Kelvinator Arsenals and Pele Utd Brothers. We have AC Gullit Stars, and they are just a netball team. Soccer here, for all its crooked referees, one-eyed supporters and whip-swishing security guards, is still incredible fun.

But that doesn't means the fans won't expect Butler and his men to approach their tasks with deadly earnest. Italia 90, the first World Cup ever televised here, left fans in no doubt of the mountains we still have to climb, not least in Africa against teams like Cameroon. It was a timely dose of reality. The fans still save their wildest cheers for the guy who beats an opponent then beats him again for good measure. But the players have a better idea of how little time and space there is at the top.

The choice of Butler as coach is surprising. For some time there has been antipathy shown towards English coaches, whose methods some see as contributing to the deskilling of the South African game. But Butler has been in charge of the country's biggest team, Kaizer Chiefs, and taken them to a cupboard of trophies, mixing attractive short-passing football in midfield with speed and ruthlessness on the break.

He has coached in Zambia and in Egypt, where he took club side National to the African Champions Cup. He has credibility and popular support. Most of all, he clearly believes in the skill of South African players. His task will be to teach them teamwork, patience and tactics, without encouraging them to be too cautious and scared to strut their special stuff.

Butler has some marvellous players with which to work. To name but four: Zane Moosa, 26, is a fleet-footed midfielder with league champions Mamelodi Sundowns, possessed of extravagant ball skills. Sundowns were playing Soweto giants Moroka Swallows at the end of the season and needed a point to clinch the title. With ten minutes to go and his team just holding out, Moosa suddenly stood on the ball. First he flipped his arms at the fans of Swallows, known as the Birds. Then he turned to the Sundowns fans, whose slogan is The Sky is the Limit, and pointed at the sky, still on the ball like a footballing Billy Graham. The place went mad, Butler might string him up for that.

Then there is Phil “Chippa” Masinga, 20, a tall, lean striker who plays for Sono at Jomo Cosmos. He started the year with seven goals in three games including two hat-tricks, then missed a chunk with injury. In his last three games he has scored seven more. He is strong, quick on the turn and scores with a mix of bicycle kicks and headers.

August Makalaklane, 26 this month, is another from the Cosmos stable, who is currently playing in Switzerland for FC Zurich. He plays wide in midfield, and his great skill, pace and international experience – which is more than any of his team-mates have had – will certainly count. And lastly, lest it seem that we will field five in midfield and five up front, there is Lucas Radebe. At 20, Radebe, a sweeper, has the sureness on the ball of a redirected midfielder. He's fast and tall, strong in the tackle and in the air.

When they run out in South African soccer's colours of gold, black and white on that November afternoon, many a cheer will first have to get past a lump in the throat. Will Radebe be good enough to keep Cameroon out? Will Moosa and Masinga get through at the other end? I haven't the faintest idea. But we're going to have the time of our lives finding out.

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