It’s being hailed as the most entertaining World Cup in two decades. Many will watch 32 nations fight for the right to be crowned world champions. But it is the quality of football at the quadrennial competition that has captured the imagination of most football fans.
85 goals have been scored in the first 32 matches alone, making Russia 2018 a goal fest for soccer lovers around the world.
One of those goals was scored by 19 year-old France’s Kylian Mbappe, who wasn’t even born when Le Bleu won their one and only World Cup as hosts in 1998. The teenager’s meteoric rise from a schoolboy to an international star with his French club Paris St. Germain reminds me of South Africa’s Steven Pienaar back in 2002.
Skeelo, as Pienaar is affectionately known, was just 20 years and three months old when he was selected to represent South Africa at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea in 2002 making him one of the youngest players at the tournament.
At the time of his Bafana selection, the laaitie from Westbury was playing football for Ajax Amsterdam after joining them from PSL side Ajax Cape Town.
That Bafana coach Jomo Sono included Pienaar in his World Cup squad before he had made his international debut speaks volumes about the quality of the player. It is also testament to the excellent training Skeelo received as a schoolboy at the Transnet SAFA School of Excellence before moving to Holland.
South Africa has struggled to produce players of Pienaar’s calibre. However, there is a new drive to revive school football which was the foundation of a successful Bafana Bafana team that qualified for consecutive World Cups in 1998 and 2002.
Last week a provincial 32-team 6 – a – side schools World Cup took place at The Balfour Park Alexander Football Club grounds. The mini-World Cup featured two host schools plus 15 u-10 primary school district champions and their 15 runners up all who qualified by way of a district level mini world cup.
The Gauteng Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation’s Thabang Ramaboya says they chose 8 year-olds and 9 year-olds to play in this tournament for a reason: “Your 10-year old now, if he’s not playing any sporting code right now, what are his chances of becoming an elite football player.”
Clearly the work begins at the school level.
Ramaboya says they have been working with the Gauteng chapter of the South African Football Association to upskill the teachers by sending them on biennial SAFA-instructed coaching courses.
“This is our biggest challenge when it comes to school sport, especially in townships. Our teachers have too much work. So what we do is that during the school holidays we call about 90 to 100 educators for a coaching course,” says Ramaboya.
SAFA Gauteng also provided referees for the tournament and deployed scouts to identify those talented boys who can follow Pienaar’s path from schools football to the World Cup. Perhaps the next Skeelo will come from WC J Mpengesi Primary School in Daveyton that won the mini World Cup.
Whitehead is a sport broadcaster and writer.