South African starlets' giant strides
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"The revolution that is needed in South African football will come in bits and pieces." This was the prediction of former Bafana Bafana coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who insisted: "It might take a while, but it will happen."

"The most important thing," he emphasised, "is that it must start at grass roots, with development. South Africa must be competitive in youth championships and they must qualify for the youth World Cups." Although the Brazilian was held in high esteem, his words were widely dismissed as the reaction of a coach who had fully realised the extent of the difficulties he had inherited in leading South Africa to the Promised Land.

Yet although Parreira and Bafana Bafana have since parted ways, the revolution he spoke of is finally taking shape - sure enough, in "bits and pieces" - after the South African U-20 side qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Egypt. Such has been their progress that bold statements are already being made about these U-20 hopefuls, with some pundits even predicting they could prove to be a ‘golden generation'.

While such adulation is undoubtedly flattering, it will be these youngsters' performances at Egypt 2009 that will determine whether these predictions are affirmed, or instead underscore that a long road lies ahead.  South Africa's U-20 coach Serame Letsoaka, for his part, is wary of heaping too much pressure on a side that thrives in the role of underdog. "We are a good side," he told "But it's always good when we go to these tournaments as underdogs. That way we can surprise people."

We have exciting players. I'm sure they want to lift their hands up and persuade the senior team coach that they are ready for the big stage,
Serame Letsoaka on his U-20 charges.

Letsoaka's side are, however, unlikely to surprise anyone who saw them produce a near-flawless campaign at the recent African Championships in Rwanda. With the young South Africans still riding a wave of euphoria that followed that semi-final finish, the focus is already turning to which of Letsoaka's charges might come in handy for the senior side.

South Africa coach Joel Santana is certainly well aware of some of the players who have been star performers for the U-20s, such as Ramahlwe Mphahele, Phumelele Bhengu and the enterprising Masibusane Zongo. The task at hand for these players in Egypt is to prove to Santana and the wider world that they have what it takes to compete at the very highest level.

The current fuss is understandable though, especially as South Africa's U-20 team had travelled to the continental finals Rwanda without fanfare, carrying a reputation for inconsistency. What Letsoaka had to do was to instil confidence within a group of players to whom victories had become increasingly hard to come by.

That he succeeded in doing might be considered unremarkable in some nations, but a look at the history books shows why it has caused such a hullabaloo in South Africa. You need to look all the way back to 1997, after all, for the last time a South African side qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, then known as the FIFA World Youth Championship.

It was in that tournament that a certain youngster with an eye for goal and a larger than life personality by the name of Benni McCarthy burst on to the scene, with this erstwhile unknown Cape Flats-born striker finishing as one of the best players in the tournament. The question now: will another South African star be born at Egypt 2009?

"We have exciting players," said Letsoaka. "I'm sure they want to lift their hands up and persuade the senior team coach that they are ready for the big stage."