Safa fails to capitalise on enormous pool of school football talent

Very few of South Africa’s public schools, less than 10%, are actively involved in organised sports programmes that have a recognised pathway to national team structures.

In the case of  football – South Africa’s most popular sport – they are basically non-existent. 

There is no doubt that football is played in many corners, however, unlike in the country’s other popular sports, not many, if any, of its senior national team (Bafana Bafana) players owe their success to the foundation laid in the schools football system. 

Former Model-C schools – which make up less than one in every 10 of the country’s public schools – can organise highly successful and exclusive formal intra- and inter-school sport programmes, which widens the gap between them and less privileged schools.

But even in such schools, little or no active football programmes exist according to the South African Football Association (Safa), unlike in other sporting codes where organised sports activities thrive.

Schools merely participating in sporting activities in silos, where there are no uniformly recognised standards nationally, does not necessarily count as organised sports participation, according to the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report on transformation in sports. 

The report was adopted as a means to measure the level of inequality in sports, and hopefully use these findings to recommend ways to address the lack of transformation in the country’s national sporting teams.

The organised school sports participation pathway ideally consists of three stages: the informal phase which serves as the introductory stage, usually starting around primary school entry age; the formal stage, within schools – which can begin as early as 10-years old – and includes consistently playing in established leagues and competitions; and the competitive stage – usually starting around high school entry age, ultimately laying down the tracks for the best talent to be filtered through to provincial and national team setups.  

The 2018/19 EPG report – the most recent one which was released by the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) in 2020 – shows that more than 24,000 schools have active athletics programmes, followed by netball, cricket, and rugby, which have active programmes in at least 5,000 schools respectively. 

Athletics has the most far-reaching school sports programmes, which are part of the South African Schools Athletics federation, with a footprint in all nine provinces. 

Formal schools athletics programmes run from February to October each year, with a direct pathway to national team representation at the Confederation of School Sport Associations of Southern Africa Athletics Championships. 

School athletes are selected through an elimination process from school, district, and provincial level – which ultimately affords them an opportunity to be selected for national team representation. 

Similarly, rugby is part of South African Schools Rugby structures, netball is part of South African Schools Netball (SASN) structures, and cricket is part of South African Schools Cricket structures, well-known for its KFC Mini Cricket programme, which is responsible for much of the developmental cricket taking place in primary schools.

No such structures currently exist for football, meaning that the football talent pool that exists within schools has no formal avenues for progression within the sport.

School sports talent pool

There were just under 26,000 schools in the 2018 schools masterlist but since 2013, just over 23,000 have been audited for the National Education Infrastructure Management System (Neims) standards reports, mostly because many were closed, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has said.

The 2021 Neims standards report shows that a tiny minority of schools have athletics, rugby and cricket facilities, a third have football facilities, and just under half have netball facilities. 

You can read our story on school sports facilities here: Two in every five public schools don’t have sports facilities 

Further, the 2018/19 EPG report shows that 16,790 primary schools and 7,576 senior schools have active athletics programmes, meaning that you can effectively find athletics in every public school. 

While it has a much lower facilities footprint in schools, makeshift and shared facilities are easier to set up, making it highly accessible and easier to participate in, as it is an individual sport.     

Athletics also has the highest township-based participation, followed by rugby.  

Netball, with a higher non-township based participation, has active programmes in  5,435 primary schools and 3,061 senior schools. SASN president Di Woolley said that over 90% of the senior national netball team, “have passed through our hands”. 

Just like with the other sporting codes, the schools netball programme was hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“Our primary schools were platooning hence there was never a full team on any one day to play league [matches]. Township schools opted to concentrate on academics due to the huge amount of time lost during the pandemic,” she said.

As things have returned to normal, the SASN will be working with the DSAC and the DBE to address the imbalances that exist within the sport, specifically for rural schools. 

Meanwhile, cricket has active programmes in 6,152 (incorrectly calculated as 11,053 in the EPG report) primary schools and 1,023 (incorrectly calculated as 1,863 in the EPG report) senior schools.  

Because of the high cost associated with cricket participation – a historically white and elite sport – young cricketers are mainly developed at private schools.

“Even the best cricket talent at former Model-C schools eventually ends up in the private schooling system to enable them to be Proteas [South Africa’s national senior cricket team] ready,” said experienced school cricket coach and youth cricket administrator Kutlwano Mokwena.

As the money spent on a single cricket match is the equivalent of the money spent on an entire rugby or netball season, cricket in public schools slowly dies over time as a result, said Mokwena.  

“Those sports are quicker and inexpensive so they end up taking over the cricket fields in those schools – which are multipurpose – because it takes at least four hours to get through a cricket match, whereas you can host four separate matches in that time for the other sporting codes.”

Lastly, 3,022 primary schools and 2,480 senior schools have active rugby programmes, although like cricket, it remains untransformed at national team level and largely inaccessible at public school level – an element which the EPG report emphasises would require much change going forward. 

Therefore, with the second-largest school sports facilities footprint, it should not be hard for Safa to increase its talent pool to the 60,000 formal youth teams that it had committed to establishing in schools, which would present a greater chance of unearthing and properly developing the best football talent in the country. 

The report recommends that football, which has a dysfunctional school structure, needs to accelerate the implementation of its long-overdue school programme based on that of cricket, rugby and netball if it is to meaningfully impact its level of competitiveness.

This can massively improve footballers’ readiness for the national football teams, which desperately need such a boost.

The South African cricket, netball and rugby national teams are ranked within the top 10 in their respective world rankings, while Bafana Bafana presently falls outside of the top 10 national football teams in Africa, in the latest the Fifa rankings.

Schools football focus

A relatively small number of schools have organised football programmes, according to Safa, and as such, cannot be considered the go-to when coming to junior national team selections. 

Competitive football starts much later than in the other sporting codes, at under-17 level – outside of the schools sports structure – however, as football development specialist Karabo Mogudi pointed out to The Outlier, there is hardly any continuity from junior national team phase to senior national team phase.

Since 2015 when schools football was placed directly under the control of Safa, following a lengthy tug of war with the now seemingly defunct South African Schools Football Association, Safa sought to establish formal schools football leagues, which it said would expose more players to consistent competition, and raise local football standards.

As things stand, the association has not even begun to scratch the surface, if the EPG report is an accurate depiction of the situation.

The only evidence of its involvement in schools football is through the annual 16-school Sanlam Kay Motsepe Schools Cup tournament, which last took place in 2019, according to the Safa website.

As it is the only body which has the authority to make decisions regarding schools football, we have made several unsuccessful attempts to get hold of Safa for comment. 

We will update this story to reflect the association’s response, when or if it does so. 

What are the consequences of inactive schools football?

In a previous story, we covered the challenges regarding young footballers in the DStv Premiership, where Mogudi highlighted, besides other factors, the inefficiencies that they are still faced with by the time they are of school-leaving age, which is when young footballers are ideally supposed to begin their professional careers. 

Most of the football development in South Africa takes place within development academies, some of which are owned by Premier Soccer League clubs themselves, but this approach is not necessarily without its problems.

Local sports researcher Geubuza Mabuza explored three pitfalls facing local youth football in his 2020 Masters of Arts in Sports Ethics and Integrity thesis titled, “Ethical challenges in South Africa youth football: Academies of Premier Soccer League clubs,” at Swansea University’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences. 

In it, he highlighted age cheating, the corruption involved in the recruitment of young players, and the exploitation of young players in academies, as some of the factors that have plagued the country’s developmental football. 

For instance, when the national U-15 football team won an international tournament contested by 48 countries in France, in 1998, the country’s jubilation was short lived as veteran football journalist Thomas Kwenaite uncovered several age-cheats in the team, including the captain, who was a 24-year-old third-year university student.

Mabuza writes in his thesis that age cheating is often caused by grassroots coaches and agents deliberately sending players who have age defrauded to trials – giving them an unfair advantage over other players [who are age appropriate]. 

None of these factors are prevalent in the other sporting codes, which outperform football in many respects, and are firmly rooted in the school sports system.

Hindering potential 

Mokwena, who was previously in the employ of Limpopo Impala Cricket – one of Cricket South Africa’s affiliates – said that apart from becoming a professional and the possibility of representing the national team, sports exposes people to a variety of career avenues.

“Sports brings massive investment and creates jobs across a number of fields. As it is hard to enter into any sports career as an outsider, school sports participation from a young age is important so that people are able to explore those avenues. 

“I have seen it positively impact the lives of ordinary people, including myself, from a socio-economic point of view.” 

So it is concerning that South Africa’s most loved sport, with just under 28,000 clubs recorded in the 2018/19 EPG report, is such a failure at grassroots level. 

But crucially, Safa’s seeming unwillingness to change the status quo, along with the DSAC not holding the association accountable for not doing so, as it passionately does with cricket and rugby, is alarming.  

Moreover, the report underpins the mammoth task that lies ahead if transformation in the broader sporting fraternity is to be fully realised. 

“South Africa’s next best cricketer could be sitting in an isolated village somewhere in Mpumalanga or Limpopo, where not much school cricket takes place, and we would never get to experience that because they were never afforded the same exposure [as children from privileged backgrounds] into the sport,” Mokwena said. 

Note: According to the 2018/19 EPG report, the data submitted by the respective sports federations was, in some instances, suspicious and subject to further probing by the DSAC. However, it is generally better than the data available from the DBE, which is incomplete and unreliable, as its school sport database had not been updated by the time the report was compiled.

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