South African Soccer: For the Love of the Game or for the Love of Money and Power?

By Dale T. McKinley · 7 Jul 2010

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Picture: 2010 Shine - 2010 Good News South Africa
Picture: 2010 Shine - 2010 Good News South Africa

The sun has almost set on the Soccer World Cup and its seeming suspension of our South African 'normalcy'. No doubt, many will try their best to continue to bask in its positively proclaimed 'developmental legacy'; but, as sure as the sun will rise on the morning after, so too will the reality of that ‘normalcy’ bite us like an unhappy dog. Nowhere will this be more apparent than in the world of South African soccer itself.

It is an unfortunate fact of our early 21st century existence – whether in South Africa or anywhere else on the globe – that major sports such as soccer, just like most everything else, have become dominated by the need to make, and accumulate, capital and power. Instead of soccer being seen and treated as a necessary and basic recreational/social need and as an integral component of people’s overall socio-economic development, we now have a situation where both participation and progress is moulded and ultimately determined by the degree to which these serve individual and commercial interests. 

Historically, and particularly in relation to South Africa's past, the beauty of the game of soccer was directly linked to it being, at the most fundamental level, the 'people's game', not a game of commercial prostitution mostly dominated by self-interested bureaucrats, wanna-be soccer kingpins and prima donna players. And yet, that is precisely what a large part of South African soccer has become, the trailing exhaust fumes of FIFA and its elitist coterie aside.

It didn’t have to be this way though. The seemingly long-forgotten 'Reconstruction and Development Programme' (RDP) acknowledged apartheid’s "distortion of sport and recreation in our society [through its] enforced segregation and gross neglect of providing facilities for the majority of South Africa’s people [which] has denied millions of people and particularly our youth the right to a normal and healthy life." It went on to rightfully point out that such facilities should be made "available to all South African communities" and that "sport and recreation should cut across all developmental programmes and be accessible and affordable for all South Africans [with] particular attention paid to the provision of facilities at schools and in communities where there are large concentrations of unemployed youth." Yet, in the sixteen years since, these fine words have, for the most part, remained in the realm of stated principles and proposed policy when it comes to addressing the recognised development needs of soccer.  

There are two main, and inter-connected, reasons for this. On the one hand, a lack of political will on the part of government  to make the national sport a public concern by actively transforming – through institutional/fiscal support and policy intervention – the developmental deficit, infrastructural needs and material inequalities that afflict soccer at the grassroots level; on the other hand, the institutionalisation of a top-down, bureaucratic and self-serving approach (within the context of a commodified, market-driven sports philosophy) to the actual development and running/management of the ‘people's game’. 

When sustained and meaningful public financial, institutional and strategic support/guidance for soccer (i.e. its democratisation and socialisation) was most needed to overcome the entrenched legacies of apartheid engineering, government pursued neo-liberal macro-economic policies that effectively made it a non-player by ensuring national grants and subsidies to local municipalities and city councils were drastically decreased. In practical terms this meant that public resources (both human and material) available at the local level for sports such as soccer were virtually wiped off the map – the ‘people’s’ sport was effectively privatised (or, at the very least, ghettoised). 

Decrepit infrastructure at municipal-level and public schools could not be adequately addressed and training programmes for community and school coaches were left in the hands of volunteers. The provision of basic soccer equipment and grassroots development programmes for the legions of township and school-going youth players had to rely, for the most part, on individuals, sympathetic community groups and hoped-for support from the private sector. In turn, this produced a situation in which SAFA (a fully incorporated private body) became the prime source for addressing the massive organisational and developmental needs of the game. Not surprisingly, it has failed miserably. 

Whether it is the sad state of community and school-level infrastructure, the pathetic financial and human resource allocations to grassroots development or the fact that it more recently took SAFA over two years to replace its former Director of Development with a new ‘Technical Director’ (present men’s under-20 national coach Serame Letsoaka), the facts speak for themselves. When appointing Letsoaka in early 2009, SAFA noted that he would be responsible for, “the development of football in the country … coming up with development plans and programmes (and) embarking on full-scale grassroots football development”. How else can one read this other than confirmation of the historic and ongoing dominance of a cynical, self-serving soccer elite?

The by-now widespread public perception that those at the apex of South African soccer officialdom are little more than a group of money-grubbing, power-mongering egoists is not without cause. SAFA continues to spend huge amounts of its time, energy and resources on glitzy public relations exercises, administrative functions, internal power struggles and outrageous salaries and perks for its top bureaucrats, officialdom and national coaching staff. In the words of ex-PSL CEO Trevor Phillips: "SAFA’s preoccupation has been navel-gazing … 80% of funds spent by SAFA go toward administrative costs … I thought 2010 would be a catalyst but SAFA is endemically corrupt and institutionally incompetent."

Indeed, many of the same faces have remained at the helm, in various positions, ever since the early 1990s and sponsorship deals have seen those individuals receiving huge payouts. Further, it is certainly no secret that a tidy sum of the billions in public expenditure on World Cup stadia as well as the expected hundreds of millions due to the local organising committee have benefited, or will soon end up in the pockets of, those who reside at the top of South Africa’s soccer world. Like most of it international counter-parts, South African soccer has largely become a hostage to the accumulative demands of corporate capitalism as well as an attitude and practice in which self-interested individualism, personal and institutional power, accumulation of money and rewarding of incompetence hold centre stage.

One of the most repeated slogans on numerous television and radio soccer programmes - 'for the love of the game' – paradoxically captures the crisis within which South African soccer finds itself. Simply put, those who have the privilege of being in charge appear to have forgotten the very purpose of why they are there. The much-loved (now deceased) South African soccer star, Pule ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, put it best: "Soccer in South Africa needs to go back to where it was … the love of the game needs to be restored, especially in the administration. Soccer fans want to see us serve much better than we do today. The challenge is not how much money I leave behind when I die but to leave a legacy for my children and the youth of this country."

On or off the field, what is needed is radical change, a return to a collective discipline, motivation, pride and passion that is at the heart of a progressive society and the game of soccer itself.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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