I've been watching a lot of the CAF Champions League matches lately. Apart from the very hard fields, the uncompromising tackles, and the massive physical element to the African game - this might be obvious to those who have watched the Nations Cup tournaments, or who are familiar with the West African players from Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast who ply their trade in Europe - but nevertheless it needs being said that our local game is hard, and sometimes dirty, but it often lacks what I would call 'finesse'.
Of course there are plenty of African players who have skill in abundance. The top African players can compare to any of the top individual players in the world when it comes to control, close dribbling skills and flair to do the unexpected, but as a collective, as a team, the African teams often get some of the basics wrong, and lack the patience and the discipline to be a force at the highest level.
Even the top African teams, and make no mistake these teams are very good, but even the likes of Zamalek and Al Ahly of Egypt, ASEC from Ivory Coast, TP Mazembe from Congo and Enyimba from Nigeria lack the complete package to make them world beaters. I watched a lot of games and made notes. One thing that all teams have in common is a lack of ideas at set pieces. Set pieces for those who don't know, is when the ball is 'dead' and you can actually attempt something that you have rehearsed in training.
The most obvious waste is at corners. The ball is kicked into the general direction of the goal area and it seems as if there is a bit of 'hit and hope' attached to it. There is little movement within the goal area; there are no 'dummy' runs, no dragging defenders around, no creating space, and therefore no real 'set piece'. And believe me when I say I've watched eight games in total, and must have seen about 50 corners and there is nothing to comment on. There wasn't even an attempt at a 'short corner'.
Patience in possession
There are very few 'long throw-ins' - another valuable set piece used to launch an attack, often aerial, against the opposition. Most free-kicks, both direct and indirect, seem to be taken with no real plan in place. Most direct free-kicks are blasted at goal with little success. Most indirect kicks are rolled into the path of a player who blasts a shot at goal - with little success. To me this is a complete waste of opportunity.
The reason I raise this weakness in the African game is that in my short time playing overseas, I witnessed first hand the importance of structure, organisation and variation at set-pieces. There is a lot more calculation and analysis of the game, possibly to the detriment of the game being played with more 'soul' but it is more efficient and more effective. Ultimately the game played at the highest level is about winning - by all means. African football must still learn that the basics of the game - defending as a team, patience in possession, making the most of your chances and practicing your set-pieces will go a long way to improving the level of our game and making our teams more competitive.
An average European team that has worked hard at their set-pieces in training will always fancy their chances against our best teams because we do not work hard enough at either attacking at set-pieces or defending against them.
Some good news for SA football - at last!
Well done to our 'development' team - a bunch of no-name brands that were roped together at the last minute, put into camp and told to defend our Cosafa title. Perhaps it is not fair to call them all 'no name brands' - there are some decent footballers there who play for some top teams, but there are no household names. I've heard from a few fans that perhaps the so-called 'big names' care too much about their cars and girls to give 100% when it comes to playing for the country. Perhaps these other players had nothing to lose and without the pressure to succeed found it easier to play their game?
What I do know is that we have some very decent footballers in this country. We do have a fixation about the two big teams though, and so historically players from other parts of the country had to move to the big two to get into the national team. I think this is changing, and it's not a bad thing. You need fresh ideas and sometimes when the national team is made up of a core of players who all play club football together they become stale. No-one teaches anyone anything new at national training camp. You start assuming what the player will do in a match because you know them so well. You stop being prepared for the unexpected - that sounds like a contradiction, but at national level you should always be prepared!
Leaves a lot to be desired
But our 'no names' did us proud, and beat Mozambique in an entertaining final. It gives us all something to cheer about, and hopefully it provides a reminder to the 'big names' that no one is bigger than the team. If ever there was a reason to be focused, disciplined and dedicated to the pursuit of international football as a South African, then walking out on home soil in less than two years is as big as it will ever be. I've even started to 'run' up front for the Camps Bay over 35s although my finishing leaves a lot to be desired!
Disclaimer: George was an average striker who scored 61 goals in 124 professional starts in South African football. He won the Golden Boot in 1992 and played three times for Bafana Bafana. He spent almost four months running around at Leeds United on trials and was called "Big un" by Scottish captain Gary McAllister. He retired in 2000 after his sixth knee operation. He wants an African team to win the Soccer World Cup in 2010.
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