Volleyball ticks all the Saffer boxes, but we still suck at it
Why? Because it doesn't get sponsorship and is untouched by the nonsense that sport is a matter of patriotism
Volleyball is fun. Many of us would have played it at school, some to higher levels than others. No, that’s not a short joke.
Dig. Set. Spike. Block. If you’ve seen any of those actions performed you don’t need an explanation: a key part of what makes volleyball fun is that it is so accessible to so many of many different abilities.
If you can get your hands to the ball before it hits the floor, you can play volleyball. To some degree, anyway.
Watching volleyball is also fun. It’s a fast, exciting game combining skill, temperament and athleticism. Things get tense out there on the court, and often there’s the drama of ill-tempered exchanges between opponents and teammates to savour along with the action.Sounds like something we, as South Africans, who like to tell ourselves that we are a “sports-mad nation”, whatever that means, should be good at.
We aren’t. We suck at volleyball.
SA’s men’s team are ranked joint 137th – or last – by the Federation Internationale de Volleyball, along with backward wastelands of international sport like the Faroe Islands, Lithuania, Macau, Georgia and the Netherlands Antilles.
Places where you might be more concerned about staying out of jail for saying the wrong thing in public or being murdered by the state or someone else with a point to prove (Iran, Egypt, Cuba, Venezuela, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine) are far better at playing volleyball than we are here in Cyril’s sunny SA, where, despite our society’s criminal levels of inequality, we can still laugh out loud at jokes like Julius and Helen and that Zwelithini idiot without getting into trouble.
Mzansi’s women’s side are, like Liechtenstein, Malta, San Marino, Andorra and Wales, among others, 115th – also last on the list.And matters aren’t going to improve anytime soon. The national under-21 and under-19 men’s sides and the women’s under-20 and under-18 teams share the bottom rung of the ladder with all sorts of odds and sods from corners of the world that you would be forgiven for forgetting existed.
But that’s better than the under-23 rankings, which do not feature SA at all; neither men nor women. SA didn’t even send teams to 2017’s world championships in the age group.
At the BRICS Games last month neither the men’s not the women’s team could take as much as a set off India or China or, in the case of the men, Russia. That’s right, fellow Saffers: your teams lost every match they played 3-0. Just to rub it in, every other men’s match went to 3-2.
And yet, even given this clearly parlous state of affairs, there is no outcry. Go to the news section of Volleyball South Africa’s (VSA) website and you will not be greeted by handwringing and despair and promises and plans to fix what’s obviously wrong. Instead, the top story is headlined: “VOLUNTEERS A DRIVING FORCE BEHIND HOSTING A SUCCESSFUL SPORTS EVENT IN SOUTH AFRICA.” Yes, in caps.
That’s noble and worthy of praise, VSA, but what the hell are you doing about sorting out the mess your game would seem to be in?Here in the mainstream media, too, we are not bothered by the fact that South Africans play volleyball about as well as songololos avoid being stood on.
Volleyball players, officials and administrators are indeed worried. But because they have to relentlessly project positivity in a country where the limelight is never theirs, they daren’t sully whatever space they have for publicity – and with it, perchance, the wonder of sponsorship – with negativity.
This is not to pick on one sport. Or, more pointedly, on one Cinderella sport. For instance, Syria, which since 2011 has been at war with itself in one the most miserably cynical conflicts of the long and, in this aspect, shameful history of the human race, are playing better football than Bafana Bafana. Fifa’s latest rankings show Syria have moved three places up to 73rd. SA? Two spots down to 74th.
But you won’t find too much in the way of handwringing and despair over how awful we are at playing football. That’s because some of us have resigned ourselves to the fact while others are more interested in the bubble of unreality that is Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates and the assorted lesser actors of that melodrama, still others think we play good football here in Cyril’s sunny SA. Ag shame. Then again, some of us think colonialism wasn’t all bad.This is not the case with rugby and cricket, where anything less than winning the World Cup – or even departing from the higher reaches of the rankings – is deemed failure for which explanations are demanded and given.
But Test cricket, for instance, involves only a dozen countries. Fifa’s rankings list 211 teams. The International Cricket Council pegs SA at No 2 on the Test ladder. Equate that to the football landscape and SA would be in 35th place. Not as bad as 74th but not nearly as good as No 2.
Cinderella sports like volleyball are rarely held up to that kind of light. Why? Because they do not attract prominent sponsorship. Because all sections of the media report on them exponentially less than on football, rugby and cricket. Because South Africans haven’t swallowed the bad medicine – as they have from football, rugby and cricket – that what happens on the volleyball court somehow impacts on our broader society; the dangerous and unseemly nonsense that sport is a matter of patriotism. Because the only South Africans who care about sports like volleyball, baseball and underwater hockey are the people who play, officiate and administer them.And that’s not the worst of it. Basketball has a professional league in SA but it remains insignificant. So you have to wonder whether the NBA is helping or hindering the game in this country by dominating what opportunities there are for media coverage and staging an annual “NBA Africa Game” that has nothing to do with SA except that it is played here.
Rather than basketball, wouldn’t you rather be volleyball? At least you don’t have a bunch of superstars playing in a media-saturated competition on the other side of the world stealing your oxygen.
The last thing Cinderella needed was a better-dressed sister.