Columnists 17.3.2017 03:14 pm

Papering over cracks and pouring the bubbly

Here we go again. We are expected to celebrate mediocrity after a national football team has managed to achieve the rare feat of qualifying for a major tournament … without Msanzi even being chosen as the host.

The national Under-20s, better known as Amajita, are so chuffed with themselves after booking their tickets to the World Cup in Korea in May. The youngsters think they are the bomb and the national football chiefs are grinning wildly at what is deemed a massive “achievement’’. On the surface, having a team qualify for the Under-20 showpiece for only the third time might look impressive, but start scratching and the gloss peels off pretty easily.

In fact, you can blow it off . First of all, Amajita reached the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations finals on the back of their qualifying wins against their mighty neighbours … Namibia and Lesotho. Then, entering an eight-team event in Zambia from which half of the participants would qualify for the World Cup, they only needed to reach the semifinals to grab one of the four spots on off er for African sides in Korea.

It’s also important to mention that serial champions Nigeria and Ghana were missing, and that they avoided Zambia and Guinea in the group draw and got minnows Sudan. I’ll give them credit for beating Cameroon and Sudan in the group stage to reach the last-four, because you still need to secure the points regardless of how poor the opposition might be perceived to be.

But in hindsight, they just did the bare minimum before losing to both hosts Zambia and Guinea in the play-off s – especially if you take into account that 10 out of the 21 players in the Amajita squad played in the Under-17 World Cup two years ago. Surely they are better than settling for a fourth place?

The post-mortem reactions from coach Thabo Senong and the players are similar, with everyone agreeing that they really wanted to win the tournament and tried so hard, but in the midst of their tremendous sorrow, their souls can at least rest easily knowing they have qualified for the World Cup.

What rubbish! I know that winning the tournament and going to the World Cup go hand-in-hand, but I can guarantee you that if you gave these guys the options of either just winning the Afcon title or just going the World Cup on a secret ballot paper, the World Cup would have come up trumps. Of course, having youngsters at big tournaments for age groups is crucial for South Africa’s longterm progress as a footballing nation, but I do get the feeling that on face value this side is only going to make up the numbers in Korea, which can be just as detrimental to the greater cause as not being there at all.

There is nothing our football bosses could have done to avoid the easy draw, but couldn’t they have raised the bar in getting to Korea? As in the case of athletics, where reaching the IAAF’s standard is no guarantee of qualifying unless you have met the stricter A standard in South Africa.

Safa could have taken the stance that they would only send Amajita to the World Cup if they reached the final. That way at least, they would have won one knockout match in reaching the World Cup. But who am I kidding? Let’s do what has become the norm – let’s paper over the cracks and whip out the bubbly.

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