World Cup shows how far Bafana Bafana have fallen

Published on: 10 July 2018

The FIFA World Cup in Russia will have made for some sobering viewing for fans of South Africa, and not just because the side did not qualify to participate at the global showpiece.

It has also been a perfect illustration of just how far the national team has slipped in terms of their standing in the world game, and how much work needs to be done to get them back to among the elite on the continent, let alone a competitive side globally.

Of course, Bafana Bafana have been in the doldrums for some time now, but they were once ranked No. 16 in the world, shortly after their 1996 African Nations Cup victory, and were a match for anybody.

Over that period they played Germany, Argentina, Brazil, England, Netherlands and France, and proved competitive opponents in all of those games even if they yielded no wins.

Now Bafana would likely get blown away -- as they did a few years ago when Brazil generously 'only' hammered them 5-0 -- and that ability to go toe-to-toe with top nations in the world is now a distant memory.

Even among the African teams that exited the World Cup in the first round, they looked a cut above what Bafana have been able to produce in the past decade.

The movement, the intelligent use of the ball, the organisation in midfield and defence, and just the quality in possession would have been a big eye-opener for South African fans.

That is not to say that the African five in Russia did not have deficiencies -- they most certainly did, especially in the opposition's third -- but the overall performances of most, bar perhaps Egypt, illustrates the level Bafana need to aspire to.

The country's long-held problems in front of goal is a subject about much has been written and does not need to be rehashed as an obvious failing of the national side.

It is an issue not just of technique, but also mental strength and composure, and is perhaps a reason why coach Stuart Baxter is looking at someone like Tom Barkhuizen at Preston North End in the English Championship.

That competition, although the second-tier, is a level above most mid-range European leagues, and Barkhuizen has come through a more consistent development structure in English football.

He has scored 46 goals in English football since debuting six seasons ago; not a bad return for a player who is most often used on the wing.

That scoring touch is something that has been missing from the national side for many years, and if he can bring a calmness in the opposition's third, it would be a big boost to the team.

The same goes for youngster Siph Mdlalose, who has come through the same Southampton academy as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to name just a few.

That solid development work, where bad habits are booted from players early on in their young careers, is what often doesn't happen in the South African context.

Baxter, or any coach in the Premier Soccer League, should not be having to teach professional players how cross a ball, shoot with the correct technique or time a tackle well. And yet they do, every week.

Joel Untersee at Empoli, Thakgalo Leshabela at Leicester City, and Keith Groeneveld at Standard Liege are all players who fit the same bill.

Their development has been a level above what they would receive in South Africa, and that will, if they can match it with ability, make them better footballers.

Morocco were arguably the best of the African sides in Russia, and they were quite unlucky not to advance from what was a very strong pool.

It is any coincidence that the majority of their players were developed in Europe, mostly Netherlands and France?

In fact, only six of the team's 23-man squad at the World Cup were born in Morocco: Goalkeeper Ahmed Reda Tagnaouti, defenders Hamza Mendyl and Nabil Dirar, and strikers Ayoub El Kaabi, Aziz Bouhaddouz and Youssef En-Nesyri.

Most of the squad have been developed through academy structures in major footballing nations, and it showed in terms of technique and temperament.

In South Africa's case, the only way they can really manage this situation is to improve the development work that is done on the ground in the country -- but we have been saying that for two decades.

The game of football has evolved so much technically and tactically since South Africa was riding high in their post-Nations Cup glory 22 years ago, but the country has not kept up, even with the basics.

They rely far more on individual skill than working as the sum of all of their parts, and that is perhaps the big difference between them and those that competed in Russia.

Source: ESPN