Exporting young talent, developing big names
There is no fancy blueprint or long equation for Belgium’s success; their exporting of young talent is paying great dividends and serves as a good lesson to South African football.
Mention your support of Liverpool to a Belgian football lover, and expect immediate endorsements of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
If Manchester United is your club, you will be engaged for as long as Marouane Fellaini’s afro about what an asset the midfielder can be, before discussion switches to neighbouring Manchester City’s standout skipper, Vincent Kompany.
Chelsea? You’ll hear of how they’ve been silly to let Romelu Lukaku leave on loan once again, while Eden Hazard will be tipped as Player of the Season and Kevin de Bruyne’s progress is lauded.
Over at Aston Villa and in millions of Fantasy Football teams worldwide, there’s Christian Benteke, while Tottenham Hotspur houses Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele.
Back in Merseyside, Kevin Mirallas has new company in loanee Lukaku following Fellaini’s departure. And don’t forget about Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen.
Belgians are immensely proud of their supply of talent – and not just to the Premier League. Zenit St Petersburg boast Axel Witsel, while national number one Thibaut Courtois is at Atletico Madrid on loan, where he’s joined by defender Toby Alderweireld.
Porto have managed to hold onto highly-rated Steven Defour and Napoli were chuffed to have signed Dries Mertens.
The supply chain, it seems is endless. In June last year, the Blues raided Anderlecht to capture the 15-year-old sensation Charly Musonda (of Zambian decent), as well as his two elder brothers, Tika and Lamisha. The following month, Chelsea added Hazard’s younger sibling, Thorgan, into the Stamford Bridge mix.
Belgium’s mass export of top talent has seen an upturn for the national team, which has failed to qualify for an international tournament since 2002, but currently top their World Cup qualifying group and look poised to compete at next year’s tournament.
It is their ‘Golden Generation’, hopefully without the curse of underachievement, which such a label is usually accompanied by (think Ivory Coast and England).
Send young talent abroad
There is a lesson in this for Bafana Bafana, and South African football as a whole.
Our young talent must be sent abroad at an early age, where development structures are better organised, and the range of education around the game is vastly different.
Just ask Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy – the exposure to different styles, cultures, systems and languages allows you adapt better on and off the field. England-based Dean Furman, too, is a good example. His ability to recycle the ball quickly and efficiently has been one of the few success stories for Bafana over the past year.
“Everything is faster ... there’s no time for showing off”
After spending five days with Ayanda Patosi in Belgium, these thoughts were reinforced. The attacker wakes up early and jogs for an hour en-route to Lokeren’s training. Afterwards, he usually does some extra gym work, before calling it a day.
The club set him up with an amazing host family, who ‘Pato’ still spends a lot of time with even though he has his own apartment. He can speak some Dutch, understands French and is working on perfecting both languages.
“When I first joined, I could tell the differences here. They want you to be faster, even in your thinking. You must know where the space is going to be before it even opens up, look for runs early, you must be sharp on and off the ball. There is no time for relaxing,” Patosi says.
“I remember in one of my first games, a pre-season friendly, I was about to score. I beat the goalkeeper and stopped the ball on the line, then I was cheeky and I chipped it in. my teammates shouted at me, they told me in a real game they would kill me if I did that.
“It’s not about showing off, it’s about doing the simple things right and adding to it with your talent. Now I know when it is better to beat a player, or to pass,” he adds.
“Growing up, I never thought I would know these things – French, waffles, swimming at night in a heated pool. There are so many new experiences that come with playing in Europe.”
South Africa’s ‘promising youngsters’ out in the cold
South Africa does have a few young players abroad. Kamohelo Mokotjo (22), for example, is in Holland with PEC Zwolle, while Siyanda Xulu (21) turns out for Russia’s Rostov – both were called up for the qualifier against Bostwana, although neither played.
Ajax Amsterdam’s Thulani Serero (23), who made his international debut two and a half years ago, has not even clocked 10 starts for Bafana.
Unfortunately, there is not enough faith being invested in our talented youngsters, who should be seeing a lot more game-time than the players who will not make any difference to our 2015 Africa Cup of Nations hopes, or 2018 World Cup ambitions.
We need to encourage more of our younger players to make the jump overseas so we have a larger pool of different skill sets to draw upon. Such a task is difficult in a period where the PSL is so strong, and is able to offer incredibly lucrative packages to players.
Learn from Teko, Mphela and Shabba’s mistakes
However, we will never unearth ‘the new Benni’ in home comforts. In fact, one of the most gifted players in the country over the last decade, Teko Modise, is still disillusioned that he never made the switch abroad. Similarily, Katlego Mphela regrets not being able to return overseas. Two players on two of the biggest salaries in the country, who realise they missed out on opportunities that are greater than their pay packets.
It is too late for them, and the likes of Siphiwe Tshabalala, now, but the country needs more Nhlakanipho Ntulis and Patosis to light up the stage abroad and come back to replicate that in a green and yellow shirt.
Stan van den Buijs, the former head of youth development at Beerschot – the club that first highlighted the brilliance of Dembele, Vertonghen and Vermaelen – told the Times last year: “All of that team went away [from Belgium] early and they have made it. Belgium was not ready to maximise their abilities, so they had to go abroad.”
South Africa too, cannot give young players the best shot at maximum development. Most club academies are in disarray or are non-existent, the conversion of Under-20 and Under-23 stars into the senior national team is shocking, and the desire to succeed right now far outweighs investment for the future.
Another lesson from Belgium, and France before it; is to embrace a multi-cultured approach. Lukaku’s family is from Congo, as is Kompany’s, and Benteke was born there. Fellaini’s roots stem from Morocco, Dembele’s from Mali and Witsel’s from Martinique ... Zinedine Zidane’s Algerian heritage and Senegal-born Patrick Vieira need no introduction.
There is incredible potential for local football to unearth young talent, show faith in them, and allow them to develop abroad. The ASD Academy is such an example of this. We just need more to follow suit.
Belgium have a population of just over 11 million. South Africa’s is just under 53 million. Imagine how nice it would be if we could also be on the rise again and discuss our talent pool when football-loving tourists come to town.