Classism Affects SA Youth Football By Cheryl Roberts

1 Apr

 

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I watched some youth football action in Cape Town at the annual Bayhill u19 boys football tournament, held in Belhar, Cape Town this Easter weekend. Although enjoying the football, embracing this football environment and seeing the young footballers aiming for goal and the faithful supporters cheering on their favourite teams and players, the tournament surfaced my deeper feeling about classism within football, the sport for the working class.

Conceptualised and inaugurated 25 years ago, this tournament is a grassroots football event, rooted in community leadership and ownership, which started out giving a competitive chance to young, aspirant footballers living in and around the Cape Flats, playing for various football clubs, most of them disadvantaged and without much resources and finances.

This efficiently organized Bayhill youth tournament was inaugurated before football unity and initially held under the membership of the Western Province Football Board. It grew in stature with massive community support. After its phenomenal growth and large community attendance, sponsors and government began to associate with this men’s youth football event. But the tournament has also shifted from being there for grassroots players belonging only to amateur clubs. It now also includes entries from rich clubs and professional footballs in SA and abroad.

And this is where the classism element rears its head. The 25th edition of the Bayhill tournament began with qualifying rounds of competition with teams trying for a place in the 32 team makeup of the tournament. By the quarterfinal stage, not even the final round, six of the eight teams belonged to SA’s professional clubs who receive millions in funding from the PSL. The amateur teams did not make it beyond the group stages. This I attribute to better financial resources and enabling environments, of teams attached to professional clubs, for the young footballers to develop and prosper.

South Africa’s working class youth footballers are passionate about playing football. Most youngsters embracing the sport play in organised leagues within their communities, hoping to gain further selection for provincial and national dreams; their dream being to represent their country on the world’s football fields and also to secure a contract with the world’s best football clubs.

However, although the working class is united in their love for football, governance and ownership of the sport by corporates and rich owners has brought classism into football. The working class footballer’s involvement with the sport is based on where he/she can get a contract, or agent to fit them into the football pyramid.

I’ve been having this analysis for some time now about the underdevelopment of football within South African football. Post-apartheid football brought all football players together one football structure and players had international football as a real ambition and objective to aim for. But the past decade especially has seen the underdevelopment of football, particularly amongst football structures leagues and clubs in disadvantaged communities where parents struggle to survive and provide for their children’s sports interest.

I really do applaud the grassroots coaches who look after the youth players. In all clubs, there’s always that one or a few officials and coaches who will transport the players, pay their registration fees, help get them soccer boots, give them food and maybe some pocket money. Up until a decade ago, one could say all teams competing in the Bayhill, one of SA’s most prestige and best organised youth tournaments, kicked the ball from the same platform. But this is not so anymore.

Years later, this youth tournament clearly separates the rich football clubs such as Kaizer Chiefs, SuperSport and Sundowns and the professional clubs like Ajax, Wits, Santos from the many clubs which are organized and kept together under amateur administration. These are the clubs who survive on passion and enthusiasm. These clubs are bound and assisted by hardworking and unselfish officials who look after the junior teams unlike the rich and professional clubs whom have structured full-time development departments with the youth teams living in club residence undergoing routine and structured training and coaching. The players want for nothing: all their expenses and needs are taken care of once they leave their family home and enter into youth contract with the club.

The amateur, non-professional, district team doesn’t have this environment to play in; theirs is that of hustle and struggle to get football boots, get to training and venues on match day. Their football world centres around the community club and passionate coaches, some of them former players themselves, others with limited coaching experience but nevertheless developing enthusiastic youth footballers.

Most junior players have international ambitions. Several players want to make it like Cape Flats hero’s Benni McCarthy and Quinton Fortune, who went from poor teenage footballers to high earning players in Europe’s lucrative and attractive leagues.

The scouts and agents are all over at this youth tournament, keenly watching out for talent amongst the hundreds of teenage footballers competing for glory. Some head scouts have additional eyes all around, keenly watching all matches for than one or more layer who can be traded for a deal overseas. 

The parents are also here, enjoying the football, watching the games, cheering and supporting their child’s team, sharing the pain and agony when goals are missed and matches lost: parents whom also have their future dreams set on the young footballer, hoping he will perform well and be courted by an agent; the ultimate destination being Europe where big money is paid.      

I love supporting grassroots, community sport and this youth football tournament is no exception. But here, whilst I recognize the footballers all share one passion of football and one goal of playing international football, my support is titled in favour of the amateur clubs or teams not connected to the rich and professional clubs. I desperately want the disadvantaged teams to win and their players to shine. I want some of these players to be spotted for youth contracts abroad because their place in football’s sun is already determined by which club they play, and most often, this is connected with a rich or professional club.

(I use the example of the Bayhill U19 football tournament in Cape Town but this is true and real throughout South African football)

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