In 2010, SA Football seemed set for a golden era - but it was not to be. The German Ambassador on the beautiful game, talented youth and Russia.
South Africa and football — that's a unique relationship! I remember back in the 1990s, when I used to live far away, I admired players like Lucas Radebe and Mark Fish, Mark Williams and Doctor Khumalo. And I watched in awe as they won their miraculous one and only championship title at the Africa Cup of Nations on home turf in 1996, the year of the Constitution, in a free and democratic South Africa.
I was lucky to be here in South Africa to witness Soccer City in Soweto become the epicentre of world football. The nation welcomed and wooed the world as it hosted 32 teams and 64 matches across the country, standing as one behind their team. That was in 2010, a mere eight years ago.
At the time, Bafana Bafana did well on home turf, beating former World Champions France and missing out on the knockout phase by just a whisper, making South Africans rightfully proud.
Pride in your team, pride in your nation, pride in your hospitality. And you demonstrated to us what hospitality really means. The colour of skin, for once, did not matter. Everybody had become a football fan. The nation was one.
Laughter and joy and excitement was everywhere. Even crime and violence seemed to subside during those 30 wonderful days. The stadiums, the fan parks, the restaurants were full of cheering fans of the beautiful game, with vuvuzelas, singing and dancing, South Africans and foreigners from all walks of life, young and old, men and women, and yes, black and white.
Football brought us all together, in South Africa. What wonderful times. What unforgettable moments. “It almost seems that – in contrast to South Africa's enthusiastic football fans – Safa executives, PSL bosses and maybe players are resigning themselves to being just another decent football nation – not bad, but not really good either.”
In 2010, sociologists rated levels of wellbeing and happiness as being on a par with what South Africans enjoyed in 1994, in the year of peaceful change and the first democratic elections, the year Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the president of South Africa. These levels have not been reached since.
In 2010, South African football seemed set for a golden era. But it was not to be.
Just a few days ago, one could reminisce about those glorious moments at the Mandela Centenary Cup. Same stadium, same spirit, joy and enthusiasm for the beautiful game, and maybe also some longing for those great moments of the past.
But Bafana Bafana did not qualify for Brazil 2014, and neither have they qualified for this year's World Cup in Russia.
On the continent, Bafana Bafana's results were lacklustre, at best. Sometimes, it was almost painful to see a once proud South African team being knocked out. At least local club teams have improved their performance on the continent in recent years.
Still, sometimes it almost seems that — in contrast to South Africa's enthusiastic football fans — Safa executives, PSL bosses and maybe players are resigning themselves to being just another decent football nation — not bad, but not really good either.
It might be difficult to believe, but we Germans know such moments well. When the German national team played awful football and was rightfully eliminated in the first round of the European Championship in the Netherlands and in Belgium in 2000, it was a debacle; a national nightmare.
But then, apparently, it had been necessary for things to get worse in order for them to get better. Today, it looks like it was the necessary catharsis to renew, to innovate, to prosper and to win again.
“I wish there was, among the decision makers, more of a common purpose to strive to become the football powerhouse South Africa was and could well be again.”
The German Football Federation [DFB], under the heaviest flak from media and fans after the dismal performance of our team, took brave decisions and developed a long-term strategy: a good national team is not the random coincidence of a row of talented players in one generation, but the result of strategic investment in youth and skills development, in talent scouting, in setting up proper competitive leagues and state-of-the-art know-how in coaching, physiotherapy, nutrition and more. So they did.
The great stars of the beautiful game do not fall from the skies. They need to be found, nurtured and guided. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller are the shining results of a broad-based youth and talent development drive across the length and breadth of the country. They were scouted and sought out, raised and trained in the years after our fiasco in 2000.
And continuity: Jogi Löw has been the coach of the German national team for 14 years and just signed on for another four years, until the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.
You ask for results?
2006, on home ground: semifinals and third
2010, in South Africa: semifinals and third
2014: World Champions
And the German team is again counted among the favourites for the title race in Russia.
Not so South Africa. Unfortunately.
It's a pity. Wherever you go, you see so much fun, so much talent, so much potential, so many committed and devoted players, coaches, referees and such a large fan base to draw from. I wish there was, among the decision makers, more of a common purpose to strive to become the football powerhouse South Africa was and could well be again.
Nelson Mandela understood the power of sports for nation-building and masterfully employed sport for his great objective of reconciliation.
The beautiful game could and should be at the forefront of that endeavour. Not only in 1996. Not only in 2010. Also from 2018 on.
With all that in mind, it saddens me that the proud flag of South African football will not be hoisted in Russia in 2018.
South African fans of the beautiful game will have to decide who to cheer for. I have an idea which team that could be...