Johannesburg - When midfielder Andile Jali left Orlando Pirates for Belgian side KV Oostende in 2014, he was one of the best players in the Premier Soccer League (PSL).
He was the pillar of the Pirates team that came within a whisker of winning the CAF Champions League. So central was he to the Pirates machine that defeat to Al Ahly in the finals was partially blamed on his injury-induced absence.
It therefore came as no surprise when the then 23-year-old landed a contract with Oostende. Excited talk at the time was that, after the paltry success rate of South African players abroad, Jali was bound to be one of the few in his generation to make a mark in Europe.
There was even hope that the modest Belgian league was just a stepping stone to greater things in Europe’s gilded clubs. After all, even Belgium’s own talented players outgrow the domestic game quickly and head off to heavyweight leagues.
Jali did okay at Oostende, but didn’t quite shoot the lights out. When on form, he showed the class that made the Belgians notice him in the first place. But inconsistent form and injuries ensured that he missed some crucial games.
Now, at the peak age of 27, when experienced and talented professionals are in a position to bargain for bigger purses at greener pastures, Jali is calling it quits in Europe.
He joins a long list of South African players who, unlike west Africa’s best exports, just don’t crack it in Europe.
To put it simply and unpalatably, our best was not good enough in a not-so-great league.
But now we had the embarrassing situation in which the country’s top three teams were chasing the signature of this failed export.
Mamelodi Sundowns (who eventually signed him on Friday) and Kaizer Chiefs were competing with Jali’s former club, Pirates, for his services. And all three spoke enthusiastically about how this player – who failed to crack it abroad – would fit into their system.
Jali also seems to be buying this hype around him, playing the rivals off against each other and talking up his stock.
He recently told Metro FM that he came home because “I still want to win trophies ... especially the CAF Champions League”.
“If I can win the Champions League, then I will say: ‘Okay, I have done it.’”
Now, Jali may still have it in him and may silence this lowly newspaperman by guiding one of the teams to glory. But it is an indictment on the quality of our league if a failed export is such hot property.
But then let us consider the fact that Dean Furman – who was a promising Chelsea youth player, but failed to get into the senior team – has been one of the dominant players in the PSL for the past few seasons.
Having been offloaded by Chelsea, Furman went on to play for such giants as Rangers, Oldham Athletic, Bradford City and Doncaster Rovers. When Doncaster no longer had use for him, SuperSport United, usually one of the top six clubs in the PSL, snatched him up without hesitation.
What’s more, this player – who had spent the bulk of his career playing in the lower, lower tiers of English football – went on to captain Bafana Bafana.
Over the next month, the majority of PSL players will be stuffing themselves with pap and vleis and drowning in pools of Corona while watching their west African counterparts, who take part in regular Uefa Champions League action, take to the fields of Russia.
This is not because they produce better footballers than us or have better facilities than us; the mentality of their players is just different. Those players treat football as a serious profession. They aspire and work hard to make it at the highest levels, while our players strive for stardom at Menlyn Park, Florida Road, Melville and Long Street.
That is why the PSL will, for a long time, remain a wealthy but average league.