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Don’t hold your breath for the U-23 team – long gone are the days of Lekoelea, Nomvethe & Pule

Shakes Mashaba’s 2000 Amaglug-glug squad which defeated Brazil at the Olympics had character and chutzpah. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the current state of the U-23 teams which has declined in prestige over the years
Thu, May 20, 2021

Amaglug-glug pose for a team picture at 2000 Olympics. PHOTO:  Tertius Pickard/Gallo Images.

On 25 May 2000, as the bus carrying Amaglug-glug players snaked its way into a jam-packed Vosloorus Stadium, it was met with ululations and a guard of honour from the 20,000 supporters who were crammed into the tiny 15,000-seater venue.

The acne-ravaged laaities inside the bus were adored and adopted by millions of South Africans, partly because Bafana Bafana were on a downward spiral, which sadly still continues today. Soccer fans fell in love with the little soldiers who were selected to make sure that SA defeated New Zealand on the day and qualified for their first ever Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia in 2000.

The boys had a bit of arrogance about them. Steve ‘Chippa’ Lekoelea, Siyabonga ‘Bhele’ Nomvethe, Jabu ‘Ngwana wa Tshwenya’ Pule and Stanton ‘Stiga’ Fredericks walked with some swag – all dribbling wizards and crowd favourites.

Quinton Fortune, Benni McCarthy, Aaron ‘Mbazo’ Mokoena seemed too focused and a bit aloof. To be fair, they were already playing for top teams overseas in Europe after all. Captain Matthew Booth, Abram ‘Wire’ Nteo, Patrick ‘Ace’ Mbutho, Nkhiphitheni Matombo were the warriors and were ready to lose limbs for their country. In fact, all the 22 players had character and chutzpah.

After a gruesome qualifying schedule, the Sasol powered team sent SA into a state of euphoria when they defeated New Zealand 4-2 on aggregate via a Daniel Matsau winning goal. At the Olympics, they went and defeated a Brazil side that had Ronaldinho, Alex and Edu in their line-up.

Sadly, the same glowing resume cannot be given to the Class of 2020 who will be wearing Mzansi’s green and gold colours in Tokyo, Japan in July. A glance through the current SA Olympic squad, in comparison to the Amaglug-glug who were groomed and coached by Shakes Mashaba, shows huge disparities in charisma, personality and a fighting spirit. While most of them may be naturally talented, they just do not have ‘that thing’ that makes them stand out or create excitement ahead of the Tokyo spectacle.

The decline started after the Sydney games. It started with all the God-given natural talent at SA’s disposal, bad administration, poor talent scouting, incompetent coaches, misuse of funds and a lack of long-term planning. It then ended with the Sasol sponsorship withdrawal, ultimately leading to the demise of the team. The SA U-23 team shamefully missed out on the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. They only made a return to the games in the last edition in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, a whole 16 years after Amaglug-glug had their maiden run and charmed Mzansi.

Coach David Notoane’s squad has a nice potpourri of local and overseas-based players but they do not seem to know each other or complement one another. It’s all about individualism and getting the job done. What has happened over the years is that the various coaches have made playing for the U-23 team very cheap. Caps were handed on the platter to average players and this killed the aura that once enveloped the team.

Having said that, local-based players like Zakhele Lepasa, Bongani Sam (both from  Orlando Pirates); Reeve Frosler, Nkosingiphile Ngcobo, Happy Mashiane (all Kaizer Chiefs), Evidence Makgopa (Baroka), Fagrie Lakay (Cape Town City) and Kamohelo Mahlatsi (Moroka Swallows) have done considerably well with their clubs in the PSL. These players can use the tournament to elevate themselves further and get lucrative contracts in Europe or Asia. The Olympic Games are, after all, known for moulding hundreds of rough diamonds into world class superstars.

That said, local players will find the going tough against overseas-based players who are keen to break into their club’s first teams. With all due respect, the likes of Kganya Leshabela, Kgaogelo Chauke (both England), Tercious Malepe (Ukraine), Kobamelo Kodisang, Luther Singh, Lyle Foster (all Portugal), Gift Links (Denmark), have not really set Europe alight. They are also are not sending shivers down the spine of their counterparts given that this is such a big opportunity.

So, it would be a very safe bet to not hope for a gold medal in Tokyo (even though the group draw was a bit kind to Notoane’s lads). South Africa will slug it out with Japan‚ Mexico and France. They were lucky to have avoided hotshots Brazil‚ Germany‚ Ivory Coast and Saudi Arabia in Group D; and Spain‚ Argentina‚ Egypt and Australia in Group C.  Maybe they can pull a rabbit out of a hat… just maybe.