Turkey’s Aurelio disposses Portugal’s Nani
The glorious football spectacle of Euro 2008 has coincided with South Africa’s national team, Bafana Bafana, reminding us of the humiliation that lies in store for the host nation of World Cup 2010. Our squad of second-rate bumblers couldn’t even beat Sierra Leone, and now looks likely to miss out on qualification for the African Cup of Nations. That’s right, football-wise, we’re not even in the top 16 countries in Africa. It’s that bad.
But watching Euro 2008, paying special attention to the makeup of the squads, got me thinking that there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Indeed, if South Africa were to follow the Euro example, it would pay less attention to second-rate Brazilian coaches, and instead import some Brazilian players. Bafana’s crisis has many causes, but its prime symptom is simply this: In too many positions, the quality of players available to South Africa’s national team is simply abysmal. There are precious few South Africans playing at the European clubs that are the epicenter of the global game today — not a single South African played in the European Champion’s League last season. Developing a nation’s latent football talent is a long-term project, but in the short term, South Africa would do well to note how other countries deal with weaknesses in their own talent pool.
Consider the Brazilians at Euro 2008. What’s that you say? Brazil isn’t at Euro 2008? True, but Brazilians are dominating games there every day: Portugal stars Deco and Pepe, for example. Or Spain’s Marcos Senna, easily the man of the match against Italy. Or Turkey’s midfield anchor “Mehmet” Aurelio (born Marco Aurélio Brito dos Prazeres, in Rio). Poland’s star striker is Brazilian Roger Guerreiro, while Switzerland’s Gelson Fernandes only sounds Brazilian; he’s actually from Cabo Verde, just like Portugal’s Nani. Sweden’s Henrik Larsson would also qualify by parentage for Cabo Verde, while Germany’s Kevin Kuranyi was born in Brazil. And, if he hadn’t been viciously crocked in the English Premiership, Croatia’s Brazilian star striker Eduardo Dos Santos would probably be setting the tournament alight. (There are seven teams at Euro 2008 who typically feature a Brazilian in their starting lineup, and of course at the last World Cup, Japan, Tunisia and Mexico did the same.) Italy, being a snootier lot, went instead for an Argentinean, Mauro Camoranesi.
The Austrian team may not have any Brazilians (or be doing very well) but it has enough Croats, Albanians, Hungarians and the like to make it more of a Hapsburg empire team than one of Austria per se.
The ironies of migration abound: Switzerland’s goal against Turkey was scored by Hakan Yekin, who would have been eligible to lead the line for Turkey. And Polish pain at being defeated by the old enemy next door was compounded by the fact that both German goals were scored by Lukas Podolski, a Pole.
Thus has it ever been with France, which typically fields a team dominated by players who would have been eligible for the African Cup of Nations.
The squads of Euro 2008 make nonsense of the recent proposal adopted by FIFA at the behest of Sepp Blatter to force club teams to have six “local” players in any starting lineup. Blatter’s xenophobic scheme to reverse the globalization of the game at club level is a non-starter, of course, because it contravenes European Union labour law, and Europe as we have noted remains the epicenter of the game. Moreover, the top clubs of Europe, who between them pay the wages of pretty much all of the world’s best players, could simply walk out of FIFA and play the most heavily watched games in the world outside of the Federation’s sanction — like the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer did to world cricket in the late 1970s, ultimately forcing the ICC to back down because the world’s TV audience was going to go with the elite players that Packer had assembled. But assuming Europe’s top clubs simply accepted the ruling, Euro 2008 shows exactly how they would implement it: By recruiting their Brazilians and Ivoirians at a younger age, bringing them in at academy level so that they would be counted as “local” — just as dozens of Brazilians, Ivoirians, Turks, Cabo Verdeans, Congolese and others are considered “local” in the national teams of Europe.
For Bafana Bafana, the message of Euro 2008 is obvious: Best start aggressively recruiting a cadre of half-decent Brazilians to strengthen the talent pool available to the national side. Of course, South Africa may be even better placed to start recruiting from the same Africa talent pools trawled by European clubs in Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and Cameroon. But to make that one work, talented African immigrants would have to feel welcome in South Africa. Pity about that.