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Why are young players not the first option?

The last time an influx of teens joined the premier division was 2017, and the deficit of proteges is painfully obvious, according to Hugo Broos. Age restrictions play a role and coaches are making the ‘safest’ choices for job security
Thu, Jun 23, 2022

About five years ago, I interviewed then Kaizer Chiefs coach Steve Komphela with a unique focus on the high influx of young players in the Premier Soccer League during the 2017/18 season… and not just at Naturena. It was a trending topic at the time.

For several years topflight coaches had been anxious about where the next generation of superstars would come from because there was no reserve league to ready them to take over from the old guard at Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns – the traditional big three clubs that set the tone in the domestic game.

Komphela made perfect sense, and I didn’t even need a dictionary. “I can’t imagine playing for Chiefs at 17. Unbelievable. I am getting goose bumps just talking about it. It’s crazy. It has been a while in SA football where you hear that parents had to be called in to sign a professional contract because the player is a minor.”

Komphela was talking about Wiseman Meyiwa, a player who made his debut for Amakhosi after his mom and dad had to be called in to sign on his behalf because the FIFA rules do not allow for anyone his age or younger to put pen to paper without supervision. Unfortunately, 14 months later Meyiwa was involved in a horrific car crash that left him paralysed and ended his career prematurely.

There were many more walking the same path that year – Reeve Frosler (19), Kobamelo Kodisang (18), Lyle Foster (17), Teboho Mokoena (20) and Sipho Mbule (20) – all being thrown in the deep end.

But fast forward to now, there’s not much excitement, and it’s no wonder Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos had a meltdown recently about the quality of the local league and wondered where he or how he is going to uncover the next big thing. The problem here is that PSL clubs aren’t taking risks anymore.

“The boy is fearless, you can ask his teammates. Sometimes when he is on the training ground he is like a 30-year-old, very aggressive. He is not shaky. When you have (Willard) Katsande, Mido (George Maluleka) and Meyiwa, if they go for a challenge and you get the same feel – then I don’t look at age. I look at what it is that we want. Can he press the ball? Is he strong enough to stick a foot in? He is confident in all of that,” was Komphela’s early assessment of the Amakhosi teenage sensation.

Very few of his counterparts think like that anymore, though there are exceptions like newly appointed Chiefs coach Arthur Zwane. What allows Zwane to still believe in the youth is his own trajectory as a coach, from working in the development structures at Naturena in 2016, to now being at the helm of the first team and calling the shots. Under his watch, the Chiefs academy graduates have hope.

What about the rest of the PSL clubs? My own conversation with one of the prominent tacticians in the league suggests job security is the stumbling block, and I added to the argument that the decision by all topflight clubs to agree to an age limit is part of the problem.

Only players 21-years and under can play in the DStv Diski Challenge, and the resolution only allows for three over-aged to feature… but they should not be over 23.

Kaitano Tembo spent two seasons at SuperSport United working mostly with reserve league graduates, but when the going got tough he was sacked. What his colleagues at rival clubs have done is play it safe to avoid suffering a similar fate, no coach in the topflight has echoed Komphela’s words in five years.

It then also suggests that the young players aren’t ready, that the gap between the reserve league and the top tier in SA football is simply too wide. And when you look at the majority of signings that have been confirmed or speculated on during the off season, the players making moves are the tried and tested.

This is why the wait for another Meyiwa could be long and painful.