Sunday, 20 July 2014

On tour with the AmaJimbos: why South African football has a brighter future than you think

On song: Tanzania and South Africa line up for the
anthems on Friday at Azam FC near Dar Es Salaam
IT goes against the flow to say South Africa have bright footballing future. Ranked 66 in the world and 14 in Africa, nowhere near the World Cup in Brazil, poor on home soil at AFCON and CHAN.

Bloody hell, we haven’t even got a head coach at the moment with Gordon Igesund serving out the final days of what was, barring a 1-0 win over now-not-so-mighty Spain, a dreadfully disappointing two years.

But I bring good news. We DO have a future. I’ve just returned from Tanzania, where our Under 17 national squad, the AmaJimbos, produced a creditable 0-0 draw against the young Serengeti Warriors at Azam FC, just outside Dar Es Salaam.

It doesn’t sound much, but believe me, these young South Africans will win the home leg and go on to play Congo or Egypt for a place in the African Youth Championship hosted by Niger next year.

It wasn’t the result which got to me at Azam’s neat little set up on Friday afternoon. It was the attitude, the drive, the ambition of our youngsters – and their SAFA back-up team.

Tanzania did all they could to unsettle a South African team featuring many youngsters – like Vuyo Mantjie from Harmony Academy in the Free State – who had never even been on a flight out of the country before.

Making their point: the AmaJimbos in action on Friday
They put is in the Sapphire Hotel, the kind of African palace you’d struggle to give one star. Stuck in the middle of the city with the local Mosque right opposite, the noise was unrelenting, particularly during Ramadan with the pre-dawn call to eat.

Ah, eating. Blimey, the food was dreadful despite assistant coach Shawn Bishop’s attempt to regulate the menu. The sight of 17 lads looking aghast at the prison food every mealtime was pitiful, they piled their plates high with bread and picked their way through stew after stew.

Basic hotel rooms with a single lift which forced even the old guys like me to run up and down the stairs didn’t help. The television channels offered one grainy view of SuperSport which came and went, the rest was… well, local.

Yep, the kind of place your missus would punch you in the head for if you ended up there on holiday. When head coach Molefi Ntseki raised some of these issues – including the unbelievable hour-plus drive to the stadium for training – the local football federation and CAF observers simply shrugged.

Walking out of the hotel was not recommended – I did a bit of exploring, it’s a fascinating, sweltering city. But when goalkeeping coach Stavros Tsichlas took us out on the final night after the game, the truth was revealed. Dar Es Salaam is no African hell hole. Barely a mile away, towards the coast, the city turns in to a beautiful seaside resort with swimming pools, plush hotels… and decent television with broadband connections!

On the road: AmaJimbos on the bus
But did our youngsters flinch? Did their heads go down? Not a bit of it. From huge SuperSport United goalkeeper Mondli Mphoto to captain Nelson Maluleka, they drew together, singing on every bus trip, dancing their way through the warm-ups after the daily blue-light drive through the chaos of Dar’s gridlocked Chinese-inspired busses.

The game itself – watched by a crowd of nearly 5000 on a sweltering Friday afternoon – was all South Africa’s. Wits front-runner Luvuyo Mkatshana had a third-minute goal ruled out – wrongly – for offside (I haven’t seen the replays, but assistant coach Bishop has got the local television coverage) and Khanyiso Mayo, the striker from the Eastern Cape, saw chance after chance go begging on the rubber-based astroturf surface.

The now-traditional Bafana Bafana problem of goal-scoring came home to roost. Mpoto – with a range of distribution right up there with Itumeleng Khune – was barely tested as Sundowns’ Notha Ngcobo terrorised the Tanzania right back and Keanu Cupido – one of SIX starters from the SuperSport United academy – soaked up everything at the back.

Putting some PSL clubs to shame: the crowd at Azam FC
Afterwards, coach Ntseki consoled a side disappointed by a sweat-soaked but goalless effort: “Heads up, heads up… you’ve done your country proud. Don’t be down about this, we’ll win it at home.”

Afterwards, in the more salubrious surrounds of the Sea Cliff casino, Ntseki and Bishop talked about the problems of goal-scoring which plagues our game. Solutions – involving former Moroka Swallows striker Noel Cousins, now a striking coach at Sundowns – are being sought.

But the message to take from Tanzania is not a glum one. These 17 boys and their SAFA handlers sneered at adversity. They took on board a first taste of travelling north in Africa. And they didn’t break. They sang.

No I in team: the AjaJimbos
These lads are our future. There is abundant talent – the AmaJimbos suffered some withdrawals due to the Engen U17 tournament taking place back in South Africa on the same weekend – and few African nations can match the resources of a nation which takes its own water and sports drinks on such trips and fights so hard for their boys.

Look, Congo or Egypt will be tough. But wherever SAFA decide to play the second leg against Tanzania next week – from Dobsonville to coach Ntseki’s spiritual home in Botshabelo – that hurdle will be reached.

And these players will march on, with valuable lessons learned. Bafana Bafana has a future. It’s just a matter of believing in our youth.

Picking the AmaJimbos: Molefi Ntseki and Shawn Bishop
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