South Africa's World cup - over at the first hurdle
The 23rd of June was always going to be a significant day for South African sport, if not our history. Either we would be waking up with the euphoria of having booked a place in the Second Round of the tournament, or we would know that we'd become the first host nation in history to fall at the first hurdle (The same debate will no doubt be taking place in Nigeria, and France, though different emotions and explanations will be offered for each)
It's turned out to be the latter, though the blow was softened somewhat by a victory over a catastrophic French team. In the end, a brave and honorable exit for South Africa, but a disappointing one nevertheless.
There is a peculiar mixture of soul-searching, blaming, justifying and congratulating going on in the local media today. Globally, the South Africa exit has been somewhat overshadowed by a French implosion, the likes of which is rarely seen in elite sport. France entered the tournament under a cloud of Henry's handball, and they're leaving with one of the more humiliating episodes in World Cup history under their belts. Any sympathy for them was extinguished by the classless refusal of their coach to shake hands after the match.
But for South Africa, it seems the public is not quite sure how to feel. Most will accept that a team ranked 83rd in the world would have to pull off a minor miracle to advance from a group where the lowest ranked team is 17th. Most are objective enough to appreciate that we went into this battle armed not with cannons and tanks but with water pistols. However, most found the belief that we could actually pull it off. This was thanks to a media who, either by accident or by design, reflect a collective arrogance of South Africans that there is some level of entitlement in sport.
We've been caught out by this before - we genuinely believe we are world-beaters, that "it is our time" and that other teams should fear us. I have very rarely heard an athlete cite his source of confidence as the hard work and many hours spent preparing meticulously for competition. Rather, we want to win because "it is our turn", as though elite sport is a nursery school where everyone has a chance. This is true not only in football, but across all sports - we regularly dominate African and Commonwealth competition, proudly congratulating ourselves for a job well done, while the real standard, the Olympic or global level, remains a distant line on the horizon.
It is this combination of "entitlement" and false measurement/benchmarking that is most to blame for South African sports failures in the last 15 years, because over and over, the administrators who run their sports have failed to recognize that high performance sport rewards discipline, planning and very, very hard work. And most of all, it rewards the best people working the hardest. Entitlement is a cancer on sport, whether it be in team selection, or the selection of the people who run the sport. If the best people are not involved, failure is inevitable.
I've written many times about sports science and the role it plays in high performance sport. Failure in sport is always a product of innumerable factors that determine the outcome well before the actual game takes place. The adage is that 99% of the work must be done before the whistle sounds the start of the match, and sports science makes up a small part of that 99% (I do not wish to overstate the value, because this too can be detrimental). The 90 minutes of play, the agonizing miss, penalties conceded, shot that hits the frame of the goal, red cards - these make up 1% of the result. This is an exaggeration of course, to make the point that preparation wins matches and tournaments.
So if we are looking this morning for explanation, I do not believe it will be found on the field, where the 1% is found. What we will find there is a team who tried hard, perhaps too hard at times, where they appeared frozen by the occasion for long periods, and constrained by what have been described as "fearful tactical" decisions. But on the field, our players committed to do everything they could. Their 1% was arguably equal to that of other teams.
The problem was the 99%, and this is the result of six years of management failures. Not coaching failures - Carlos Alberto Parreira did all that he could in 2010 - he took the team away from South Africa for international camps and friendly matches (sadly, sporting success in South Africa requires that one leave the country). He restored the confidence of the players and won matches against opposition that two years ago, would have been unbeatable. He effectively "sequestered" the best players we had to offer and tried to raise their level of performance to that which would make us competitive. And he succeeded - we were fit enough, certainly, and reached a level that we've not been at since perhaps a decade ago. But ultimately, the margins between winning and losing are so small (the width of a goal-post, for example, because had Mphela not hit that post against Mexico, things would be different), that we were found out at the highest level of competition.
South Africa performed above any realistic expectations. Fans, of course, are entitled to have unrealistic expectations - their passion drives their opinions! But media, and the sports authorities, are not. Will we perform the correct evaluation of our football system after this tournament? Or will the result be glossed over, allowing us to continue on our merry path to mediocrity, the result against France providing the justification for doing nothing differently in the future? Time will tell.
But as harsh as it may be to say this now, this was a failure, and until we recognize this, and invest not in hope and entitlement, but rather in expertise and professionalism, we'll fail over and over.
The failure is not in finishing third in a four-team group, going out on goal difference - that is a commendable performance, and congratulations to the players. The problem is the "generals", who sent the soldiers into battle unprotected and underpowered. Our infrastructure, our expertise, our wealth and our resources simply cannot add up to 83rd in the world. There is something wrong with that picture.