When the members of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) clubs were first introduced to a certain idea of “club licensing”, in a seminar in November 2013, there were plenty of procedures and concepts to grasp and understand. However, what stood out for the Mamelodi Sundowns’ Head of Youth Shawn Bishop was something quite practical: he would use the occasion to extend and develop his club’s youth divisions.

The Sundowns have won the league title a record six times since the inception of the PSL and yet the only youth squad they fielded until then was the under-21s. As Bishop got acquainted with the project of implementing a club licensing system in South Africa – that is, a set of principles that clubs must meet to be eligible to compete –, and as these principles included a youth development programme, he quickly embraced the idea.

“Soon after the concept was presented, before the requirements for PSL clubs were even formally set, we started pursuing this,” Bishop explains to FIFA.com. “We implemented our football academy all the way down to the under-15 category and now we are working on a foundation programme for even younger ages.”

Adapted standards
The process of coming up with minimum standards for clubs to comply with in order to participate in official tournaments is one that starts globally with the FIFA Club Licensing System - which is then transformed into confederation principles and finally into national ones, taking into consideration the peculiarities of club football in each region.

These standards, which FIFA aims to roll out worldwide by the end of 2016, range from training facilities and youth football development to good quality stadiums and professional, trained staff.

When all six confederations met this week in Zurich to work on the global programme together for the first time, CAF Club Licensing Manager Ahmed Harraz pointed out the South African example as a benchmark for the region as it works towards fully implementing its own criteria. “We have been seeing South Africa come up with a very strong licensing system,” says Harraz. “The PSL is doing a great job in organising the league and raising the level of the clubs.”

Indeed, for just over two weeks prior to the start of the 2015-16 season, officials from the PSL travelled around the country to meet with representatives from the clubs to offer assistance and assess all the elements that were included in the set of requirements defined by the league. This went from discussing the clubs’ statutes and legal framework to checking the qualification of coaches and medical staff, to inspecting and measuring the clubs facilities.

“We went through both FIFA’s and CAF’s requirements and added what we found to be our own, specific needs. So, we started sending out the forms and visiting the clubs in order to have the system of licenses fully in place for the first time come the 2016-17 season,” explains the PSL General Manager of Football, Derek Blanckensee. “There are different categories of requirements within our divisions, ranging from A to C, and we distribute them accordingly. Fortunately, in South Africa several standards are very high, as an inheritance of having hosted the World Cup in 2010. At the end of the day, for me, club licensing is about unifying criteria just as much as it is about adapting to the specificities. But we should know where to aim at, for the benefit of everyone.”

Development beyond club level
One of the key elements of the licensing system lies precisely in the value that it can bring not only to each club specifically, but to a region’s football as a whole. This is the reasoning behind a club like Ajax Cape Town fully supporting the club licensing project in South Africa – even if they already met the PSL’s principles by the time these were presented.

“Eventually, all we did was to ratify that we indeed complied with all the requirements,” says CEO Ari Efstathiou. “I would not be shy to say that Ajax are a model, especially in our concept of a strong youth academy – with a lot of support from the fact that we are associated with a European club (Ajax Amsterdam) that follows this philosophy. I am happy to see every club pursuing this path, because this is for the good of South African football. The point of club licensing is not to have it in place because we have to do it, but because we should do it. If everyone complies, it can be a fantastic development tool and even have a direct impact on the national team.”

Here, again, the example with youth football is already tangible, before the licensing system is even operational in the country. “All you have to do is look at the South African squad that qualified for this year’s under-17 World Cup,” says the Mamelodi Sundowns’ Shawn Bishop, who is an assistant coach of the team that will play the FIFA U-17 World Cup in October, in Chile. “Most of our players come from four institutions in the province of Gauteng who have been working on their youth academies: SuperSport, Wits, School of Excellence and now the Sundowns. If we establish national principles to have clubs investing in the development of youth football, the growth and the results will certainly be there to be seen. It comes down to making the clubs accountable, and that is for their own good.”