The Curse Of Southern African Football
IT has been a different start to the year for football star Khama Billiat.
His future at Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs is back under the spotlight amid reports the former Zimbabwe national team player could be offloaded in June. The 32-year-old forward is now into the last six months of his contract with Amakhosi, but the club is not keen on retaining the Mufakose-bred attacking player
“Kick Off” magazine recently reported that Billiat and his teammate Eric Matoho “look unlikely to remain at Naturena in June”.
Kaizer Chiefs’ longest-serving player, Itumeleng Khune, also faces an uncertain future. During the same period five years ago, Billiat was wining and dining with Africa’s top footballers.
After he was named in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Team of the Year for 2016, he narrowly missed the CAF African Player of the Year based in Africa award at a ceremony held in Nigeria on January 5, 2017. Billiat — then a red-hot forward with Mamelodi Sundowns, who had won the 2016 CAF Champions League — came second, behind teammate and Ugandan shot-stopper Dennis Onyango.
But he still remained in the company of elite footballers such as Riyad Mahrez (Algeria), Sadio Mane (Senegal) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabon) in the 2016 CAF Team of the Year. Serge Aurier (Cote d’Ivoire), Aymen Abdennour (Tunisia), Eric Bailly (Cote d’Ivoire), Joyce Lomalisa (DR Congo), Rainford Kalaba (Zambia), Keegan Dolly (South Africa) and Onyango completed the list.
Three players from Southern Africa made it into that pool of the continent’s football aristocrats. The Zimbabwean also managed to write his own piece of history. He is the only Zimbabwean to be named in the CAF Team of the Year since 2005. He also made it into the CAF Champions League Team of the Decade (2011-2020), alongside former teammate Percy Tau.
The duo were the only Southern African players on that list. Curse? Generally, it has not been easy for players from Southern Africa to stand their own among the continent’s best, let alone break into Europe’s elite leagues. National teams from the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (COSAFA) have perennially played second fiddle to their counterparts in West and North Africa.
There was no team from Southern Africa at the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar. In fact, no team from Southern Africa has qualified for the global showcase since 2010, when South Africa qualified as the hosts.
The International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS) released its African Team of the Year for 2022 last week. And, once again, the composition of the team exposed Southern African football. Seven players are from North Africa, three are from West Africa and one is from Central Africa.
These include Yassine Bounou, Achraf Hakimi, Roman Saiss, Sofyan Amrabat and Azzedine Ounahi (all from Morroco); Kalidou Koulibaly and Sadio Mane (Senegal); Mohamed Salah (Egypt); Vincent Aboubakar (Cameroon) and Ali Maaloul (Tunisia).
Worryingly, no player from Southern Africa has made it into the IFFHS African Team of the Year in recent years. There were also no Southern African players in the IFFHS Team of the Decade (2011-2020), which was released in January 2021. Vincent Enyeama (Nigeria), Ahmed Fathi (Egypt), Mohamed Salah (Egypt), Mehdi Benatia (Morocco), Koulibaly (Senegal), Bailly (Cote d’Ivoire), Yaya Toure (Cote d’Ivoire), Andrew Ayew (Ghana), Mahrez (Algeria), Mane (Senegal) and Aubameyang made up the team.
Also, no Southern African player has won the CAF African Player of the Year award since its inception in 1992. However, there are a handful of Southern African players shining in Europe’s top leagues, with Patson Daka (Zambia) and the Zimbabwean duo of Jordan Zemura and Marvelous Nakamba the only representatives in the English Premier League.
Size and experience Dynamos juniors coach Lloyd “Mablanyo” Chigowe thinks the reason Southern African players play second fiddle to their peers in West and North Africa lies in stature. “I predicted before this last World Cup that the majority of the teams that would qualify would come from West and North Africa,” Chigowe told The Sunday Mail Sport.
“My prediction was based on the strengths of the products they produce and their level of seriousness when they get into the football business. “Basically, the other reason we are failing to make a mark is that the majority of people in the COSAFA region are small in stature, unlike the West Africans, who are huge.
“And yet we are failing to appreciate the need for a scientific approach to talent identification and development, which entails that we should look at the possibility of the player growing bigger. “When I identified Marshall Munetsi and brought him into the Under-17 squad, key among my major decision-making factors was the potential of the boy to grow big and his potential to break into the European League,” he said.
Munetsi, who is 1,88 metres tall and weighs just over 80 kilogrammes, is one of the few Southern African players having regular game time in one of Europe’s top leagues. The Stade de Reims midfielder is now attracting interest from Premier League club AFC Bournemouth. “We need to deliberately identify talented players who can grow big . . .
“But size alone is not what we are looking for; we also look for technique in these big-bodied players. We are not saying we should completely overlook the small-bodied players,” reasoned Chigowe. Although Billiat made it among the best in Africa, he failed to break into Europe, and analysts attribute his failure more to his small stature than skill.
Gerald Sibanda, who has established links in the Spanish La Liga through his Real Betis Academy Zimbabwe project, feels Southern African talent is no longer attracting top European scouts.
“This results in our players failing to get opportunities in Europe unlike their West or North African counterparts,” he said. “Most top professional scouts for the big teams in Europe are now mainly focused on the West and North African market.
“So, that is one fundamental thing that needs to be fixed, and for that to be corrected, we need now to have talent that is attractive to them. “For instance, most scouts came to South Africa because of what Ajax Amsterdam and Ajax Cape Town had.
“The best South African players were produced through this partnership, and the likes of Steven Pienaar, Benni McCarthy, Thulani Serero and Matthew Booth ended up playing great football in Europe.”
He said players like Benjani Mwaruwari also benefitted from such exposure. “It’s time that we create structures that allow these European teams to start sending scouts back to our region,” added Sibanda.
Lack of players with European football experience is also reportedly affecting performances of teams from the region in continental competitions. South Africa (1996) and Zambia (2012) are the only teams from Southern Africa that won the African Cup of Nations Cup since the competition’s inauguration in 1957.
The AFCON trophy has been monopolised by teams from West and North Africa. South Africa, for example, have close to 50 players in Europe, but many of them feature in lower leagues.
Former Chiredzi FC team manager George Dhliwayo attributes the gap between Southern Africa and the rest of the continent to lack of investment in football. “When we were growing up, we used to have junior tournaments where the likes of Wieslaw Grabowski would come and spot the talent that they would nurture. “Now, we no longer have these tourneys,” Dhliwayo said.
He believes Zimbabwe lacks “a clear blueprint for football development”. “There is too much politics in football at the expense of development. Incumbent ZIFA (Zimbabwe Football Association) presidents only think of preserving power.”