Building on 2010

The conclusion of the 2010 FIFA World Cup was always going to be a bitter-sweet moment for South Africans, as pride in their successful hosting of the tournament combined with a feeling of sorrow as world football’s biggest party finally left town. For the national administrators of the game, however, these remain exciting times as they seek to maintain the momentum produced by the FIFA World Cup™ and use it to boost domestic interest in both the league and the national side.

Football has long been the most popular game on the African continent, but the diverse ethnic backgrounds of the South African population has meant that, in this African nation at least, the sport has traditionally had to vie for attention with a host of other sports including rugby, cricket and golf. The staging of the 2010 FIFA World Cup has the potential to change that, however. As well as boosting the image of South Africa in general, the event has ensured that the game and the country are now synonymous.

Although the South African national team, Bafana Bafana, narrowly failed to make it past the World Cup group stage, the spirited nature of their performances – most notably in holding Mexico to an opening-day draw before beating former world champions France in their final game – surpassed the expectations of many South African fans and has provided a solid base for the South African Football Association (SAFA) to build upon.

As part of its efforts to nourish the game further, the association has pledged to increase its commitment to developing grassroots football and youth team activities, and has already introduced a programme aimed at identifying talented young players earlier than has been the case in the past.

At the senior level, a new coach has been appointed, with Pitso Mosimane stepping up from his role as assistant to former national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, a move which was generally praised by the country’s media for both signalling a new start for the team and preserving some continuity from the reasonable success of the 2010 campaign. Mosimane was quick to establish himself as his own man, setting out a vision for the next four years which he believes will culminate in his team’s qualification for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.

“The road to 2014 will not be an easy one,” acknowledged SAFA’s chief executive officer Leslie Sedibe. “We are mindful of the challenges ahead, especially after having staged a very successful FIFA World Cup in our country. We are also sending a message to our team that there is no room for complacency when we face any of our opponents in the qualifiers. We must prepare adequately.”

The association already pulled off an impressive marketing coup in persuading Ghana, the most successful African side at the 2010 edition, to return to South Africa to play their first post-tournament friendly against Bafana Bafana in August. Capitalising on the popular acclaim that surrounded the Black Stars’ run to the tournament’s quarter-finals, the game drew a crowd of almost 50,000 to Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium. Fortunately, Mosimane’s men did not disappoint – clinching a 1-0 win over the Ghanaians thanks to a first-half goal from Katlego Mphela.

As attention switched to the qualification campaign for the next Africa Cup of Nations, SAFA President Kirsten Nematandani insisted he was confident about his country’s footballing future. “Some people may think we are silly and getting ahead of ourselves,” he told FIFA World, “but we can dream and push towards that dream. We want to be the leading soccer nation in Africa and eventually the first African nation to play in a FIFA World Cup final.” 

Shared dream
The dream of becoming Africa’s top football nation is also shared by the people in charge of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL), which has already made great strides in recent years towards attaining a truly international standard of professionalism. A healthy television market in the country has helped dramatically and two years ago the satellite pay channel SuperSport bought the rights to the league for some USD 160 million, reportedly the seventh-biggest television deal with any league in the world.

Substantial increases in revenue for the clubs have already helped several teams to bring in coaches with high-level international experience and have also helped the league become more attractive to players, both in terms of retaining local talent for longer and “importing” players from other countries in increasing numbers – with a Latvian international defender, a Japanese striker, increasing contingents of West Africans and the usual batch of exciting Brazilians among the recent arrivals helping to spice up interest in the PSL.

Having already built up a massive following among the country’s majority black population, the league’s administrators are now looking to build on the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup which saw thousands of rugby and cricket fans from South Africa’s other ethnic communities showing a new interest in the “beautiful game”. This is the market that the PSL now wishes to add to its existing audience. The iconic stadiums left over from the 2010 event, the much-improved infrastructure and the general post-World Cup euphoria should all provide extra leverage.

Of course marketing a FIFA World Cup, with all the accompanying global interest, is a very different proposition from drawing in new spectators to the lower-profile South African league. Just as with SAFA, however, the league’s administrators have been working hard to maintain football fever in the country.

Explosive start
To ensure an explosive start to the new season, the league kicked off with a double-header at Cape Town’s Green Point stadium, with newly-promoted local side Vasco Da Gama taking on Orlando Pirates before Ajax Cape Town opened their own campaign against Bloemfontein Celtic. Taking place as this issue of FIFA World went to print, the event was expected by league officials to easily sell out the stadium’s 52,000 capacity.

Soccer City, the venue for both the opening match and the final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, was also sold out in August when a record league crowd of 87,001 attended the season’s traditional curtain-raiser, the day-long Charity Cup tournament, won this year by Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs (pictured opposite) and also featuring Orlando Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and Durban side AmaZulu.

“We will certainly be building on the momentum of what was a wonderful World Cup with great memories for everyone,” insists Kjetil Siem, the chief executive officer of the league. “Obviously now people will ask, what is it that the PSL is going to do? That will motivate us further as we step up our efforts to bring the fans back into the stadiums. We want to see all the people who were at the World Cup coming back and experiencing more.”

As well as bringing back World Cup fans, the league will also be looking to draw in many hundreds of thousands of football fans from poorer areas who did not get a chance to follow the World Cup action from the stands. The refurbishment of stadiums in places like Botshabelo, Athlone in Cape Town, Mamelodi in Pretoria and across Soweto means that much better equipped medium-sized stadiums are also available to the country’s professional clubs.

And while the league and the national association obviously have their own separate sporting and marketing strategies for the coming years, there are also clear overlaps between the two organisations. For instance, the fact that Bafana Bafana relied heavily on local PSL-based players during the 2010 campaign is seen by league officials as extremely helpful as they now look to carry the success of the World Cup into the domestic league season. “There is no doubt that having so many national team players based in the PSL will give us an even better brand image,” says Siem.

Clearly, the 2010 FIFA World Cup demonstrated a massive appetite for the game in South Africa. Feeding that appetite over the long term may still require some mouth-watering football exploits by both Bafana Bafana and the country’s top clubs, but at least the table has been professionally set and the main ingredients are all now in place.