Youth development in South Africa, or lack thereof, is often blamed for Bafana Bafana’s failure to win tournaments, as well as the lack of continental trophies making their way to Mzansi. The Bafana coach is urged to field young players in the national team, but how can he show belief in youth if his PSL colleagues, the club coaches, aren’t doing the same? In this feature I looked into how much South African teams believe in their youngsters, and why SuperSport United and Ajax Cape Town are on the right track.
SuperSport United have always been renowned for the players’ that they have produced over the years, with established overseas names such as Bongani Khumalo, Kermit Erasmus and Kamohelo Mokotjo having come through their ranks.
Last season, however, under the tutelage of Cavin Johnson, Matsatsantsa took their youth development to a new level, promoting many of their youngsters to their first team, even throwing a few teenagers into their starting XI.
Former coach, Gavin Hunt, also has to be given credit for his hand in the development of players at the Tshwane-based outfit, as it was the three-time PSL winning coach that first brought players such as Dean Patricio (now with PEC Zwolle), Aupa Moeketsi and Thabo Moloi into the first team and signed a young Morne Nel.
SuperSport’s 1-0 win over University of Pretoria last season saw them start with four teenagers Brandon Dean (19), Skhumbuzo Mazibuko (18), Nel (17) and Moeketsi (19), all making the cut.
Add to that the fact that they also had two other teens, Moloi (19) and on loan Angolan, Joao De Oliveira (18), as well as recently promoted trio, Zama Rambuwane (17) and Dumisani Msibi and it looks bright for the future.
There are also four other players within their squad, including Ronwen Wiliams, Andile Fikizolo, Thabani Mthembu and Tshepiso Sathekge that are all 22 or under, and it seems that Johnson and his club really is looking towards the future. At this stage they have nine U23s registered with the PSL.
They have to be good enough…
Cavin Johnson – Former SuperSport United and Platinum Stars Head Coach
I caught up with Cavin Johnson, the man who spearheaded SuperSport United’s youth influx but now finds himself under immense pressure, who explained why he was promoting so many youngsters last season, and what he was hoping to achieve.
“When I came into a team that was three-time champions I had to analyse that championship winning team. I looked at players like Tshepo Gumede and Bibo Ntshumayelo, players who came from this team. Even someone like Thato Mokeke, they are all products of the SuperSport academy.
“I have a coaching background at all the levels up to where I am now, and now I think ‘What did I want my players to be like when I was coaching at the bottom’, and this is where I want them to be. I want them to be with me at the ages of 17 and 18.
“SuperSport United are three-time PSL champions and the SuperSport academy also has a history of winning trophies, I’m trying to blend the two going forward and create a philosophy now that will last. If you look at all the successful teams in the world, both national and club, the average age is coming down.
“They have to be good enough, they have to be hungry enough, and they have to be focused enough to play. I look at someone like Sameehg (Doutie), he’s 24 and has already played in the PSL for about six seasons, meanwhile we have other players that we call ‘youngsters’ that haven’t even played 20 games yet.
“By the time talented players turn 21 you need to have at least three seasons with the first team of a PSL club and at least a handful of games under your belt. That way it develops my team, and also the national team all the way from Bafana Bafana to the U17s.
“Take Brandon (Dean) for example. When we were first looking at him we had Innocent Mdledle, we had Sibusiso Khumalo and we had Davis Nkausu who could all play at left back. I’m of the opinion that the immediate future of my team lays with Sibusiso who is 24, and I look at the other guys and wonder if there was going to be space for them, especially given their ages.
“I wanted to have a player that could come in for Sibusiso in the future. I don’t know, maybe two seasons down the line Sundowns offer him big money and he goes back there, I want to have something sustainable so that I already have a good player to come in and take his place.
“I want my guys to play at all levels, whether it’s the PSL or the Champions League, and ultimately give them the chance to play in a higher league, a higher league in Europe. For me, if I have a player for two weeks and he goes somewhere better, I’m happy. That’s the way that I am, and I know that there are 48 million people in this country, and there are 10 players similar to Morne Nel’s level ability walking around waiting to be found. It’s our job to find them and give them a platform.”
The only other club close to matching SuperSport’s achievements up until now is, unsurprisingly, Ajax Cape Town.
Having produced several young players over the years, including Benni McCarthy, Steven Pienaar and, most recently Thulani Serero, the Urban Warriors have arguably the most respected youth system in South Africa.
This season, firstly under Muhsin Ertugral and now under Ian Taylor, the club have opted for youth over experience, often reaping positive rewards from their talented youngsters.
19-year-old Abubakker Mobara has been a regular in the heart of the Urban Warriors’ midfield, while fellow teens, Brandon Petersen and Tashreeq Morris (both 19) have both been called upon on several occasions. In addition to that, Ajax handed contracts to young trio, Riyaad Norodien, Ayabulela Magqwaka and Rivaldo Coetzee, last season promoting them to their first team.
Meanwhile, Ajax have plenty of other players within their squad that are 22 or under, with the likes of Keagan Dolly, Toriq Losper (both 21), Bantu Mzwakali, Travis Graham, Mosa Lebusa (20) and new signings, Thabiso Nkoana, Robin Ngalande, Phathizwe Sacolo and Noah Sadaoui all on board.
This season they have 12 U23 players registered with the PSL, and are flying high in the league using largely players from their own development.
There is no constitution…
Ian Taylor – Ajax Cape Town Assistant Coach
The crew spoke to Ajax’s current head coach, Ian Taylor, a man who has deeply invested himself in youth football, as he gave his take on youth football in South Africa, and some of the problems that are currently halting progression on many fronts.
“It offers benefits financially of course, the club doesn’t have to go and buy players, so that is one of the reasons that we do it, but it also gives an aspect of continuity. When you’re constantly pushing youngsters through the system it gives the younger players a role model and a goal, something that they can strive towards.
“They know that Ajax will give young players chances, and that gives them hope, that’s a large form of motivation for the youngsters.
“The ultimate goal for us is to provide training at a European level, but it’s difficult here because of the level of football here, especially at youth level.
“Our biggest downfall in this country is competition, and that’s because of the lack of youth academies. There will be a scary situation coming up soon when academies will be under threat because of agents taking players away and dictating to clubs where players should play.
“With SAFA there is no constitution, there is no corporate governance like in Germany or Holland where they protect the academies. If a player is in your academy for a certain amount of years then you must receive compensation if somebody else wants him, it’s a free for all here.
“With someone like Abubakker (Mobara), who I think is one of the best players in the league, at another club he probably wouldn’t have even been given any chance in the first team. Now he’s been given a chance, everybody wants him, and that’s one of the problems with our football. They prefer to buy than to develop.
“There’s too much money and the clubs don’t hire coaches with a long-term plan. Coaches under pressure try to buy the finished project rather than develop a player. We’re a club that will take time to develop a player, even though it may affect our results, because that’s just the way we are.
“We have so many players that have gone through our youth system, if you go through the other clubs you’ll find so many that have played in the Ajax system at some stage.
“With the club being in the situation that it is, we need to sit down and restructure. I totally believe that, with the youngsters we have coming through, alongside some very strategic foreign signings, this young team can win the league. We need to make a long-term decision with a new coach coming in, we need to have a plan in place where we can work with a composition of players and plan three years ahead with them.
“Teams also don’t focus enough on their players off the field. Their life skills play a huge role in their career and the role that other people, like agents, play in their career. We need to get the youth structures right first, competition is everything, and if players are playing regularly every week then there will be a natural development taking place, at the moment there’s none.”
What the rest of the PSL is doing…
Looking through Ajax and SuperSport’s PSL rivals, none of them come close to the level of youth being displayed by the Urban Warriors and Matsatsantsa.
Last season, between the other 14 PSL clubs there were around 25 teenagers registered in the PSL, 11 of them with Golden Arrows, while some teams don’t have a single teenager in their first team plans.
While Arrows’ high number of teenagers may sound impressive, none of them have featured in the PSL up to now, and only three players under the age of 22 have played for them at all so far. They also went on to get relegated.
At this stage it really is just Ajax and SuperSport that are showing faith in South Africa’s youth, with other clubs often opting to sign and play experienced players rather than develop and field their own products.
One player that comes to mind is Orlando Pirates product, Nhlakanipho Ntuli, has now left South Africa to join Dutch side, FC Twente, after signing a professional contract with them.
Despite the fact that Twente, and established Eredivisie side, saw something in the 18-year-old, he left Mzansi for the Netherland’s top division without making a single first team appearance for the Buccaneers.
The role of SAFA, the PSL and the national team
While it’s important for PSL clubs to show faith in their youngsters and give them elite experience in South Africa, the buck doesn’t stop with them.
Mzansi’s most talented youngsters, playing in club academies, should be featuring for South African youth teams from the age of at least U17, not just making their international debut in the full Bafana Bafana side.
Spain’s national team, some of them, have been playing together since around U16 level, while the rest have been part of the national team since U18. In South Africa it’s a rarity that we see the U20s in action, never mind anything younger.
By the time South African footballers make it into the senior team they should, ideally, already have a wealth of international experience under their belt and know a handful of the players they are going to be playing with.
Meanwhile, a proper reserve and youth league needs to be set up by SAFA and the PSL, so that teams can give young players game time, as well as offer their fringe/recovering players a chance to get their mojo back before making it into the club’s first team.
If South African football is to take steps forward in the future it needs a buy in from all of the involved parties, not just the league, or the association, or the teams, all of them.
Looking further ahead than the immediate future is what turned Spain into world-beaters and what has led Germany to creating a generation of players that, more than likely, will claim an international crown in the coming years. South African football needs to follow suit.
New Bafana coach, Shakes Mashaba, has taken some steps towards giving youth a chance, opting to call up several youngsters such as Rivaldo Coetzee and Aya Magqwaka into the senior team for the upcoming African Cup of Nations qualifiers.
How they do it overseas…
If you look around Europe, commonly believed to have the best football leagues in the world, players are youngsters up until around 22-years-old, and even by then they are expected to be holding down a first team place.
The youngest player to ever play in the English Premier League is Fulham’s Matthew Briggs at aged 16 and 65 days. Wayne Rooney made his debut at 16 and 10 months, scoring his first goal not long after, while Cesc Fabregas first made it onto the scene at 16 and 6 months.
Alex Ferguson’s famed ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary & Phil Neville and Nicky Butt were all playing first team football in the Premier League, at the same time, before reaching their 20s.
In Spain, Barcelona handed Lionel Messi his professional debut not long after turning 16, while his Real Madrid rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, made his first appearance for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal at the age of 17 and a half.
Nuri Sahin, of Borussia Dortmund in Germany, was playing for the club’s first team by the time he was 17, as were the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Stephan El Shaarawy and Francesco Totti in Italy’s Serie A.
And it’s not just Europe either. Sergio Aguero made his Independiente debut just a month after his 15th birthday, his compatriot, Diego Maradona, had debuted for national team by 16, and Brazilian legend, Pele, was helping Brazil win the World Cup by the age of 17.
In the past we have seen South Africans such as Steve Lekoelea and Thomas Madigage handed early career starts, as well as Santos’ Fagrie Lakay in the NFD last season, however they are exceptions to the rule, and not the norm.
It’s not a case of playing youngsters just because they’re young, they have to be played because they’re good enough. Yet they’ll never be good enough if they aren’t given the chance to improve from an early age.
We have two of the three critical phases missing…
Steve and Cayl Coetsee – Directors of Coerver Coaching South Africa
To expand on what more needs to be done when teaching the youth of South African football, I tracked down Steve and Cayl Coetsee, two men who have experience in the game in Mzansi who are working to try and make it better for the youngsters.
Steve, a former pro, was coach to players such as Mark Fish, the late Thomas Madigage and Bongani Khumalo, while his son, Cayl, is a former Director at the Glenn Hoddle academy in Dubai and now a full-time Coerver coach.
The Coerver Method is an international technical development method inspired by legendary Dutch coach, Wiel Coerver, and acclaimed for it’s 30 year contribution by FIFA. During his time as a head coach, Coerver was nicknamed “The Albert Einstein of Football”.
France’s Football Association as well as Bayern Munich and Arsenal have previously endorsed the Coerver coaching method, a method that is ‘suited for all ages but especially for players aged 5-16 years old, of all abilities, and their parents, coaches and teachers.’
“For many years we have had to watch the standard of football throughout South Africa drop year by year.
“Since the increased professionalism of SA’s PSL, the level of the game seems to have dropped. Clubs have been forced into having Academies, which seem to exist solely for the reason of appeasing the league rather than developing players. The local model of housing, schooling, coaching and supposedly developing talented players, in our humble opinion seems to be a waste.
“Players are taken and given too much too soon. There is no struggle or fight left in these players and the retain/release policy adopted by the clubs leaves a lot to be desired. In saying all of this, when analysing the PSL academy programmes, one will find a majority with only under 15-19 teams.
“When on the recent Advanced Skills course in Switzerland, Joe Joyce, Academy Director of Newcastle United discussed with me the three phases in elite player development.
1. Grassroots/ FUNdamental phase
2. Academy Development
3. Professional Development
“While the ages of these phases can be debated, the fact that there must be the three phases remains. We believe that in SA the problem lies in that we have two of these phases missing.
“Academies cater for the Academy Development phase, where the nation is rife with tournaments and leagues for these ages, sadly in the earlier so called ‘Golden Years’ of childhood development (6-12) there is a tremendous lack of development. We are also yet to find a club with a specialist Professional Development Programme (in Europe 17-21 but in SA would probably be 20-23) players are taken from academy football and the lucky ones, thrown into professional football and told to swim. Most of them drown, and hence we find the complete lack of players in this age category playing in the PSL. We believe many players are killed off due to improper development systems and structure at every level of the game.
“How do we solve the problem? We feel the best way to solve the problem is to stop blaming everyone, and each and every programme and role player address their own, internal structures. For example, in a PSL club, appoint a Technical Director who is tasked to oversee the club and programme cohesion. Develop community programmes focusing in the development of a broad base of players and supporters, followed by an academy of purely local talent.
“Educate the staff by sending them to different programmes at a similar level around the world. Academy coaches should also make an attempt to educate themselves in childhood development and youth psychology. We look at PSL academies and find them full of former players.
“There is nothing wrong with a former player who has become a coach granted the player has attended courses and served his dues working as a coach in the various levels of the game. It is only through experience that coaches can improve, it is impossible to coach and deal with young players without having any former experience. Alternatively, seek individuals who have experience in developing players, with academic qualifications and a passion for youth, not coaches who start in the academy with the goal of taking the head coach position.”