Engaging, competitive and energetic, the 163rd instalment of the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates was one of the better matches in recent episodes of this much-anticipated derby in South Africa’s Absa Premiership.
A 3-1 victory for the Buccaneers over Amakhosi was much deserved, and allowed them to pull further clear of them in the league.
Over the past few years, matches between the two giants of Soweto have not lived up to the expectations of the colourful supporters that follow the teams wherever they go across the country.
In the last seven matches, there have been five draws and two wins for Pirates, with the managers adopting more tactical approaches to grind out results, rather than allowing the players to freely express themselves.
Such conservative ideas seem to be common throughout the league, if not across the continent. When we speak about African football, a more attacking, expressive approach should be included in the conversation.
Of course, managers must show their tactical abilities and follow their own methods, which have mostly been adopted from European cultures, but most have resorted to finding ways to stay in matches and not lose, rather than trying to show initiative and play on the front foot.
Have coaches coming in from overseas struggled to build exciting teams of note because the players are not quite up to the standard they may have been expecting, or do they fail to appreciate the talent at their disposal?
In recent years, the most impressive team has arguably been Mamelodi Sundowns, who have shown that you can play an attacking brand of football without losing defensive and tactical discipline.
Currently sitting at the top of the Absa Premiership standings, Sundowns are the last South African team to win the CAF Champions League, in 2016, showing endeavour with players like Khama Billiat, Leonardo Castro and Keagan Dolly forming a formidable frontline that allowed Pitso Mosimane’s team to dominate both locally – they won the 2015/2016 league title – and on the African continent in that season.
However, even with such success, genuine goal scoring quality still seems elusive in South African football. Much is always expected from the Absa Premiership, which is arguably the most progressive league in terms of financial resources, fan base and continental coverage in Africa, but for them to make the step forward, in terms of coverage abroad and exposure for their players, the quality of football will need to improve.
Sundowns have only scored 37 goals in 23 league matches, a return that you would not associate with the top team in any competitive league. Chiefs have been able to register only 19 goals this season, the third worst goal scoring tally so far, yet they sit in third in the standings.
That speaks volumes of the style Steve Komphela has chosen to adopt – they have 11 draws in 23 league matches – and with the potential that can be seen in the team, it is a bit of a disappointment to see them play the way they do.
There may need for a complete shift in the approach adopted from coaches, starting at grassroots level, right up to the national team. The South African Football Association (SAFA) can be commended for trying to develop football across the country, but is enough being done to produce the coaches and players that can take them to the next level? Are academies equipped with the necessary resources to develop players for the future? Are there sufficient revenue streams, and are they finding their way to local teams for further football development?
Modern football has entered a new era of quick, attacking play. Granted, the quality of players dictates the style that a team may adopt, but is enough being done to develop the players to believe in their attacking qualities? When last have we heard of a South African attacker taking the continent by storm, before we even venture into leagues abroad?
The top goal scorer in the league so far is Polokwane City forward, Rodney Ramagalela, with a tally of ten goals, followed by Sundowns midfielder Percy Tau on nine. Pirates’ leading scorer this season is Amigo Memela with five, which is surprising for a team that are second in the league. Chiefs have Gustavo Paez as their top scorer with only three to his name.
That does not bode well for a league that is trying to produce players that can take the national team to African Cup of Nations (AFCON) appearances, as well as competing at the World Cup, and more often than not players are taken from the bigger clubs locally, as well the few that play abroad.
South Africa have failed to qualify for the instalments of the World Cup since they hosted the spectacle in 2010, as well as failing to win AFCON since their 1996 triumph.
Countries such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast boast players that are able to play in the top European leagues, who in turn bring their experience from those leagues into their national team set up. Coaches are able to adapt their tactics to the quality of football being exhibited by their players.
For South Africa, such experience seems to come from a minority, and very few actually compete in the big leagues abroad, so emphasis may come in the development of local talent, but there is very little evidence of that actually bearing fruit.
Until players can be allowed to develop their skills in a more progressive setting, South African football may struggle to improve on recent disappointments. It was refreshing to see Milutin Sredojevic’s approach in Pirates’ win: a mixture of high pressing, incisive runs and effective counter-attacking football proved worthwhile.
If more coaches approached matches in similar ways, then South African football could be in a better place.
However, more needs to be done if South Africa is to reach the pinnacle of African football once again.