The short, sharp Joburg high schools soccer season is under way.
Despite having the richest league on the African continent, the best stadiums and facilities, and the only continent-wide TV broadcaster, our national team is ranked near the bottom of the pile, it sometimes doesn’t qualify for the continental championship and often loses (like it did last week) to countries like Lesotho.
And It’s still, unbelievably, being said by those who are trying to explain why this is so, that one of the reasons for this debacle is that the well-resourced schools in the country don’t include soccer as part of their sporting programme and that some of them forbid the playing of the game by their boys.
They claim that our so-called top schools – independent and former model C, I presume – are all rugby institutions and they don’t practice the round ball code.
That’s nonsense! Soccer isn’t played at many Afrikaans medium schools, sure, but how many of the total number do they make up? Let them pay rugby I say, and you don’t hear many complaints when the products of those institutions shine for the Springboks in international rugby.
The fact is that soccer is big at most of big traditional rugby-playing schools, and it is of course played at the vast majority of the schools across the land. So, the problem is not one of access to the game, it’s one of not optimally using the school system as the major developmental nursery the way that rugby, does.
This weekend the annual St David’s Challenge Cup tournament takes place. It isn’t the biggest, or the only, schools tournament taking place at this time of the year, but there will be 32 school teams in action, under-19 and under-15. That’s close to 600 boys, and 90 officials. There will be 96 games played over three days, on quality fields, each one with qualified referees assistants and with every player wearing the proper team kit.
It’s the 17th time it’s being staged and they are close to getting the running of it like clockwork as is possible with an event of this size. Some teams may get stuck in the Joburg traffic, the weather may intervene, but I can pretty much guarantee that the grand final will kick off at 3pm on Sunday, as scheduled, followed by a prize-giving at which the winners will receive the spoils, and the also-rans will be given their due for the part they played in making it the tournament that it is.
It’s an elite sporting event, but it’s also an educational exercise – that’s important.
There are also tournaments at Kloof High School in KwaZulu-Natal, at Hudson Park in East London, at Grey College in Bloemfontein, at Joburg’s Waterstone and St Peter’s College’s, among others.
The participating teams will typically play five to six games over three days, which gives them as much game time in the four week-odd season as they would get in three months of weekly fixtures.
And there are weekly interschool fixtures as well. The biggest difference between these school and most of the soccer-only ones is that soccer is a mass participation activity and weekly games have to be arranged for multiple teams in all the age groups.
Down in Durban, it’s massive. When, for example, Westville Boys’ High plays Glenwood (both rugby powerhouses) it’s not unusual at this time of the year to have 25 soccer games on the day. It’s not something matched by the competitions organised by the SA Schools Football Association (Sasfa).
There’s something wrong with football in South Africa, that’s clear. But the problem doesn’t lie with the rugby-playing schools. If you don’t believe me, go down to St David’s Marist Inanda this weekend.