This year’s CAF showpiece will be contested next month by reigning champions Esperance of Tunisia and Egypt’s record winners Al-Ahly; a match sure to be packed with the passion that always fuels northern derbies.
Sadly, however, there will be little interest back home, with the country’s participation having ended way back in February. This is no doubt a stain on South Africa; that its clubs have fared so poorly to a point where the country has all but lost interest in continental football.
More significantly though, it’s this lack of interest that has contributed to the national team not only plummeting in the world rankings, but losing respect as a top tier opponent on the African continent.
The record of South African clubs in the Champions League is dismal to say the least. This year Orlando Pirates were timidly knocked out in the preliminary round by Angola’s Libolo; last year it was SuperSport United beaten in the first round by Al-Ahly.
In 2010, the last time the country had two teams in the competition, Pirates were again dismissed in the preliminary round, by Gaborone United, while SuperSport fell to a second round exit at the hands of Nigeria’s Heartland. And in 2009 both SuperSport and Ajax Cape Town were knocked out in the first round.
The effects of this lethargy transmute to Bafana Bafana, which has dropped to a ranking of 76th in the world.
When Pirates famously won African Champions Cup in 1995, it was seen as a sign of great things to come. After years of exile, Africa was the new exciting frontier to be conquered. In 1993, Jomo Cosmos had thrillingly reached the semi-finals of the CAF Cup Winner’s Cup before their magical run was finally halted by Ivory Coast’s Africa Sports.
In 2001 Mamelodi Sundowns reached the Champions League Final, while Kaizer Chiefs won the Cup Winner’s Cup, allowing the country to enter two clubs in the Champions League for first time since re-admission.
The upshot of this enthusiasm was a golden age for Bafana, the pinnacle of which saw Neil Tovey lift the Nations Cup in 1996. Over the next five years Bafana finished second and third at the tournament and qualified for two consecutive World Cup finals, in 1998 and 2002.
However, instead of building on this success, South Africa has regressed dramatically and since 2010 the PSL has only been permitted one team in the tournament. CAF has a system which ranks countries according to how their teams have fared in the Champions League and Confederations Cup over the previous five years. Only the top 12 countries are allowed to enter two clubs in the Champions League.
The current list consists of Tunisia, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, the DRC, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Angola and Zimbabwe.
South Africa is ranked 16th.
The Champions League has its problems, no doubt. Perhaps it would help if the lucrative group stages happened earlier, with four groups instead of the current two. Conceivably this would decrease travelling distances and generate more interest in the competition with more countries involved.
South African teams also point to the high costs of participating and in 2005 Chiefs pulled of a Confederation Cup match, citing this very reason, resulting in a three-year ban from CAF.
Even so, the country seems to be missing the bigger picture. National team achievement and club success are not mutually exclusive.
Egypt’s period of dominance in the 2000s came as a result of Al-Ahly’s continental successes. The Pharaohs team that won Nations Cup titles in 2006, 2008 and 2010 was built around Al-Ahly players. World champions Spain had long been international bridesmaids until the success of Barcelona set the platform for the national triumph.
Another African example is TP Mazembe’s recent rise, which has seen the rebirth of their national side resulting in the DRC qualifying for the Nations Cup for the first time since 2004.
Going further back, the platform for the success enjoyed by Cameroon in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s was set by a golden period for Cameroonian clubs in the 1970s. Between 1971 and 1980 Cameroonian teams won the Champions League four times, with Canon Yaoundé winning three titles (in 1971, 1978 and 1980) and Union Douala lifting the cup in 1979.
Deprived of the hardened nature of African competition, South Africa’s national teams have suffered. Without considering the hosting of tournaments, Bafana hasn’t qualified for the Nations Cup since 2008 and hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 2002.
Gloomy stats are readily available.
The last time Bafana won a game at the nations Cup was on January 24 2004, a 2-0 win over Benin, while South Africa hasn’t ended the year in the world’s top 40 since 2004, a position the country had held since 1995.
“It is important to take part in African club competitions,” former Bafana coach Pitso Mosimane said last year. “Our players need to experience the harsh conditions, learn about the lack of facilities in other parts of the continent to realise how fortunate they are; they need to rough it and travel in the kind of bus that looks like it could disintegrate any time.
“They need to experience hostile crowds in a packed stadium. It will build their character. It will make them stronger mentally and, by the time they get selected for national duty, they will have experienced it all while playing for their club sides. It can only help our junior and senior national teams in Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.”
It’s difficult to disagree.
While talented, the current crop of players is not exposed to enough competition. It’s a far cry from a time when Bafana was able to call on battled-hardened players from Mark Fish to Helman Mkhalele, to whom no challenge held fear of the unknown.
Plans are afoot to try and remedy the situation.
In April, PSL chief executive Stanley Matthews revealed plans to align South Africa’s football season with the calendar from 2014, as is the norm in most African countries and to the way the Champions League is played, in a bid to help our clubs become more competitive on the continent.
“In principle the executive have agreed to switch the season to a calendar year to be in line with the rest of Africa,” Matthews said. “The League wants to see its clubs do well in Africa and this is a step in that direction.”
1995, the year when Pirates lifted the Champions Cup trophy, was the last in which the domestic league was played in the January-December format, before shifting to the European (August to May) calendar in 1996.
Whether a switch back is a definitive solution is debatable. Calendar change or not, what seems of most importance is clubs take the Champions League much more seriously.
With the Nations Cup just around the corner, South Africa’s place on the continent becomes an even more pertinent issue. We has arguably the top domestic league on the continent, but for the country to be taken seriously as a football nation it has to do much better in Pan African competitions, coupled with the realisation that South Africa can’t host every tournament.
For now we’ll likely have to watch the rest of Africa dominate, and Esperance and Al-Ahly battle it out for the tag of Kings of Africa, from the back seat.
By Teboho Molapo