“The Springboks don’t even need to lose a lot, one game and people get depressed. They’re like an A student that gets a B and people are worried. Whereas when Bafana Bafana lose, no one really cares,” joked South African comedian Trevor Noah when comparing the contrasting success of South Africa’s national sporting sides.
Jokes aside, Noah does inadvertently raise an interesting question. Why, while they produce world beaters in rugby and cricket, can’t South Africa field a better football team?
A study last year found that amongst South Africans with a favourite national sporting team, over 95% favoured one of just three teams. These were the Springboks (rugby), Bafana Bafana (football) and Protea (cricket). Bafana Bafana was easily the most popular, with 74% of those with a favourite team preferring them, most of these supporters being of black South African descent.
The Springboks and Protea were favoured by less than 15% each, both with a majority white South African fan base. So, presumably this reflects the level of success the teams have enjoyed? I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Springboks are, as anyone with even a passing interest in rugby union would know, a global superpower of rugby union. They have produced some of the most feared and respected players the world has ever seen, they have a better record against the All Blacks than any other team on the planet, and have won two Rugby World Cups (having only competed in six).
The cricket team, while less successful in major competition than their rugby playing counterparts (which has earned them a choking reputation in the sport) are routinely one of the best sides in the world and are currently ranked 3rd in the ICC Test Championship rankings.
Bafana Bafana is a very different story. Currently ranked 68th in the world, they have qualified for just 3 World Cup tournaments, the third of which was by virtue of the fact that they were hosting the tournament.
As is so often the case in South Africa, one must ultimately conclude with grim predictability that race is the root cause of such disparities. Even today, over 20 years on from Nelson Mandela’s seismic efforts at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, sport has not had the unifying effect on South Africa as one might have hoped. In fact, it has become something of a vehicle to tear the country apart.
As explored in their fantastic book ‘Soccernomics’, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski assert that money is a key indicator of success in sport at the elite level. South Africa have plenty of it, though only if you belong to the right demographic.
As of 2013, 47% of South Africans were below the poverty line, an overwhelming majority of whom are black, while last year 60-65% of the nation’s wealth is in the hands of a predominantly white 10% of the population. Indeed, even today up to 80% of the top 1-5% of earners are white. Staggering statistics given apartheid ended in 1994.
The resultant poverty at the bottom has a drastic impact on a nation’s ability to compete at elite level sports. For example, poor children must devote more of their youth to labour in an effort to earn money for their family’s survival, as opposed to playing sports. Deprived youth are also much more likely to have inadequately nutritious diets, which can stunt growth, impede muscle development and lead to higher rates of illness. Of course, these conditions are not conducive towards sporting prowess.
In addition to this, poorer nations are more isolated from the rest of the world. They are less interconnected through trade and technology, less aware of developments overseas and their citizens are less likely to travel abroad to experience cultures and beliefs.
Such factors are exacerbated for a country like South Africa situated at the most southern tip of Africa, separated by the Pacific Ocean from the footballing strongholds of South America, and by the entire African continent from Europe. Such isolation means South African youths that do show footballing promise are coached by people less familiar with tactics in footballing hotbeds, often play in teams employing outdated tactics and are less likely to be spotted by scouts from major European clubs.
Evidently, these are deep economic and cultural problems which must be solved at grassroots level through the dedication of extensive funding and time in the living standard of black South Africans. Such policies would enable South Africa’s black population to contribute to the nation’s sporting teams much more successfully, enable the country to become the footballing force their population and wealth dictates they can be, and would help foster the notion of South Africa being a truly inclusive society on the world stage.
The fact that SARU have instead ruled that the Springboks must be comprised of 50% black players at the 2019 World Cup may not only prove detrimental to the team’s chances of being competitive, but will also do nothing to solve the fundamental problems faced by the South African nation.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena
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