Like many Ajax Cape Town supporters my heart sank when I saw the line-up for South Africa’s first fixture in the men’s Olympic football tournament. Hopefully many South African football fans in general felt the same, but this is unlikely given the cult of popularity that surrounds Itumeleng Khune. Everyone that watched the game will know that South Africa excelled against the host nation, but sadly followed this up with defeat to Denmark last night.
Keagan Dolly was the star player on the opening night and played well again in the second game – he has now become an internet sensation in Brazil. Neymar was kept in check by an outstanding performance by Abbubaker Mobara that has been making news headlines around the world. And still it is the ever popular Khune that dominates the reporting from SA sports journalists and commentary from the nation’s football supporters.
Personally, I find it hard to get excited about football at the Olympic Games. Like many other professional sports that have been added to the games – tennis, rugby, golf – the presence of football just devalues the whole competition and detracts from those sports for which the Olympics in the pinnacle of an athletes achievement. For example, the mass withdrawal of golfers emphasises just how much they value competing. Football also has its World Cup and has only been played at the Olympics following a series of negotiations and compromises with FIFA. To distinguish the Olympic tournament from the World Cup, since 1992 male competitors must be under 23 years old, but since 1996 three over-23 players have been allowed per squad.
The problem is of course that to qualify teams can only use their under-23 squad. Step forward Jody February, recently promoted to the full PSL squad at Ajax Cape Town. February has been in outstanding form during the qualification campaign and would have been looking forward to representing his nation in the tournament. But then the over age players were parachuted in and Khune has taken his place in the first eleven for both games so far. Is there anybody in the football world who could not feel sorry for Jody in these circumstances? It certainly seems that many of our senior footballers were against the selection of Khune with Moeneeb Josephs, Benni McCarthy and Nathan Paulse questioning the decision.
Of course the coach does not have to select any over age players. He could decide to go with the squad that got there in the first place and perhaps only change players that are injured. That is maybe difficult when your opponents are taking advantage of the ruling. Brazil were after all fielding Neymar on Thursday night.
But if you are going to select over age players why would you choose Khune? Really what has he achieved in the game at an international level? As a one club man he has never played outside of his home country. Unlike Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates, his club, Kaizer Chiefs, have no desire to participate in African national cup competitions and his exposure and success in competitive international club football is limited. As an international he has captained his country to a series of spectacular failures. This includes getting sent off in the World Cup on home soil and the hugely embarrassing mistake in a 2011 AFCON qualifier with Sierra Leonne, when he faked injury to allow South Africa to draw when they needed three points to qualify. Does his ability or attitude really add value to this squad?
This group of under-23 players is the nation’s future on the football field. They need to be guided by role models not celebrities. I obviously have a Cape Town bias, but I would have kept Jody in goal and selected Thulani Serero and Steven Pienaar as the over aged players. Serero has undoubted ability and has played at the highest level overseas, including the UEFA Champions League. He is currently not in the squad at Ajax Amsterdam and would have been likely to be available. Pienaar has recently started training again and remains the South African footballer that is still playing at the highest level of international competition. Even if we did not actually play these two guys in the tournament they are surely the correct role models for the youngsters to be around and aspire to. Imagine the guidance that Pienaar could offer after a decade of playing in the Premier League.
South Africa made a good start to the Olympic football tournament, but did we see anything from Khune that Jody February could not have done? Well apart from the exaggerated feigning of a pretend injury that earned a sharp reprimand from the referee in the first game. Brazil continue to underperform in international competition and did not provide a substantial test, even when South Africa went down to ten men. It would have been ideal to blood the potential future national goalkeeper in such a game. Now that the final game becomes a win or bust fixture there is even less chance that Jody February will see a single minute of action.