Never thought I’d say this, but full kudos and kisses to Safa
Proof of positive change at the SA Football Association can be seen in the results of the national teams
Bafana Bafana’s qualification for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations is another sign of a turnaround in the fortunes of our national sides at all levels and across genders, suggesting strong work is being done within the SA Football Association.
It is not fashionable to congratulate Safa these days and they certainly are an organisation riddled with a myriad of problems, but credit should also be given where it is due and the proof of a positive change in output can be seen in the results of the national teams.
Some of the recent success has been achieved in spite of Safa, but blind luck can only take you so far and it is clear that those who do good within the organisation have put in place strong structures from which we are beginning to reap the rewards. Bafana’s Nations Cup qualification was expected, but we have seen them stumble over small hurdles so often recently that it was still celebrated as if they had reached the latter stages of the World Cup.
The move to give Stuart Baxter extra time with the players to prepare, in conjunction with the Premier Soccer League, was a welcome new take on an age-old problem of the coach only getting his players days before a game.
Taking qualifiers against Seychelles and Nigeria back up to altitude from the comfortable surrounds of the coast was also a positive move, and something to be continued.
The national under-23 side looked imperious in their 6-1 aggregate thrashing of Angola in the qualifiers for their continental finals, which will also be used as the preliminaries for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They will meet Zimbabwe at the next stage in June, when coach David Notoane should have his leading players again, and on paper the team looks one of the best on the continent, let alone their region.
The under-23s were woken from a three-year slumber for the contest after competing in the last Olympics in 2016, but a perusal of the squad shows this is a side with good international experience. It is packed with players who have come through the under-17 and under-20 teams, those who have played in vital Cosafa tournaments and qualifiers at age-group levels. There has been admirable continuity in selection to bring these players through and many are now well-versed in what it takes to compete at this level.
That is also a departure from the past, where there were no links through the age groups and coaches at the various levels would select squads with no planning or designated pathway for players. Sure, some will fall by the way side, that is natural in sport, but as we can see the majority can make it if given a chance. Despite the one-sided scoreline, this was a very decent Angolan side that was easily dispatched.
The national under-20 team has qualified for the World Cup in that age group for the second-successive occasion, the first time in SA’s history they have managed to do so. They have been boosted by the continuity from the under-17s and strong work by coach Thabo Senong, who is often handicapped by not having his best players available due to club commitments.
The under-17 side narrowly missed out on continental qualification when they lost in the final of the Cosafa championship to Angola in that age group, but there also looks to be a strong core of players there.
It is not just the male teams that have prospered, Safa should also receive a pat on the back for the work they have done with the female sides, most notably Banyana Banyana.
A World Cup qualification has been achieved with some strong backing for coach Desiree Ellis, and the arrival of the likes of Netherlands and Sweden to these shores in January provided greater experience for the group. They have also managed to secure an away game against top-ranked US in May, as well as a home fixture against Jamaica next month.
The buildup to this point for Banyana has been many years in the making, with some bumps along the way, and while Safa has been involved in bonus skirmishes with the team, they have also generally provided the right environment to make it happen. Added to that, the women’s Under-17 side competed at the World Cup in Uruguay last year and already some of those players have had an entry into the senior national team, suggesting the pathway is strong.
The cynic will say these successes paper over the cracks and Safa faces a tough future with reduced TV revenue, but we also have to judge them on the strength of our national teams and for the moment they get a big tick for that.