There is a well-rehearsed period piece going back about four or five years that encapsulates South African football’s oddness. The story concerns Gavin Hunt, the then coach of SuperSport United. SuperSport had just won their third league title in four years and Hunt was called into the office of Imtiaz Patel, slightly confusingly the head of the other SuperSport, the pay-per-view station that probably shows more live English and European football than any other station in the world. Instead of being congratulated as expected, Hunt was berated. SuperSport (the television station) were in the business of selling decoders, he was told, not winning championships. Winning like this was bad for business because SuperSport, as they both knew, were not the biggest or best-supported local club. Far better, Patel added, that one of the traditional powerhouses, a club like Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates, win the title because they have far more supporters– more fans translates into more potential customers. SuperSport cannot win on two fronts –better they win commercially. Best to go out in future and lose the title.

When he’s not pounding the touchline or scowling for the cameras, Hunt is a handy golfer. Depending on his schedule he spends at least a morning or two a week shuttling from hole to hole in one of Modderfontein GC’s many golf carts. He’s no poet but the airiness of the fairways and the dance of the leaves brings out the raconteur in him. He often tells the story of his meeting with Patel and shakes his head as if to say: “Do you see the kind of bullshit I have to put up with? Can you imagine the head of Sky telling Sir Alex or Moyes or the wild-eyed Van Gaal to stop winning the title because Sky owns the fucking club?” Afterwards, gathering himself, he bends down over his putter and, unerringly, slides it wide.

In his day Hunt was a left-back for Hellenic, the much-loved but now defunct Greek outfit from the Western Cape. I never saw him play but his manner – grumpy, suspicious of frippery, unsentimental – suggests that he wasn’t scandalously gifted. I imagine he would have been hard and unsmiling and liable to kick the shit out of you if you gave him half a chance, which is why, along with his prickliness and strangely old-fashioned penchant for truth-telling, he possesses an authority like few others in the local industry. Despite having a compelling claim, he’s never coached the national side, being seen as a public relations time bomb, but he’s done well for himself and the clubs he’s coached, although he has struggled slightly at his new club, Bidvest Wits. He’s been there for a season and a bit and shows little sign of steering the ship in the way he steered SuperSport. Then again, with the wealthy Brian Joffe at the helm of Wits, a man who has made his money in services and catering, at least he’s not going to be asked anytime soon not to win the title. In turn, this could have a knock-on effect on his short game around the greens. In a nice little coda Hunt might even point out that since he left SuperSport United, they haven’t come close to winning the title again.  

Depending on how you look at it, Hunt had either the fortune or the grave misfortune to be coaching SuperSport United at much the same time that the Premier Soccer League brokered the biggest TV rights deal in its history. Before that, domestic football was shown by the national broadcaster SABC and certain domestic and international matches were defined by the regulator as being in the national interest so had to remain where they were. The PSL was becoming increasingly frustrated with the SABC, however, complaining that the quality of their service and the product left much to be desired. They gave the SABC the opportunity to bid for the rights when the deal came up for renewal and, when they failed to do so, they went to market, market in this case meaning SuperSport. It is safe to say that football in South Africa has never been the same since. 

As elsewhere in the world, much business in South Africa is conducted on the golf course. Some have pointed out that Patel and Irvin (pronounced Ivan) Khoza, the chairman of the league, play golf together, although – as far as I know – they don’t play on the same course as Hunt. While there’s nothing strange in this, it is a local peculiarity that Khoza wears too many hats. As well as being chairman of the league he is the owner of Orlando Pirates, one of the biggest and most powerful clubs in the country, and it is difficult to know whether he and his board of fellow PSL governors are ever really able to make decisions for the betterment of professional football rather than the betterment of themselves and their clubs. Two years after SuperSport won the title for the last time, Pirates won the league and cup double. Ruud Krol, parachuted in from Egypt to coach Pirates, was promptly given his marching orders.

There are not only corporate governance and conflict of interest issues bedevilling the league. The league’s detractors point to a dependence culture where the distribution of the broadcast rights monies at the clubs means that they receive R1.5million (£85,000) per month, whether they are sponsored or not, and do little to develop or grow their club. Indeed, many clubs in South Africa don’t own their own stadiums. Merchandising by British and European standards is poor or non-existent, and watching the second tier of professional football –say Polokwane United against Free State Stars –feels rather too close to non-league football in the UK for comfort.

Khoza is proud of the fact that teams no longer have to travel by bus to far-flung venues in what is called the platteland in South Africa, saying “we’re now an airborne league, everyone flies to away fixtures”. And while this is true, the monthly grant to the clubs also means that the players are comparatively well paid in local terms. This has led to an absence of desire to pursue options elsewhere – another expression, perhaps, of the dependence culture. Eventually players tend to stagnate locally, and, with most of the players chosen for Bafana Bafana coming from the PSL, this has impacted negatively on the national side. There was a time when South Africa used to qualify for World Cups, as they did in 1998 and 2002. Not any more, unless they sneak in via the back door by being hosts. “I played in Europe [in Germany and Norway] so I understand their mentality,”says Mame Niang, a Senegalese striker who plays for Mamelodi Sundowns. “There is talent here, for sure, but no hunger. The two big academies in Senegal have put 35 players into Europe in the last three years alone.”

It seems a distant memory but fairly recently South Africa used to export good players in numbers to Britain and Europe. Fifteen-odd years ago, it was producing players like Lucas Radebe, Phil Masinga and Shaun Bartlett (all born between 1969 and 1972) and, of a slightly younger generation, Benni McCarthy, Mark Fish and Quinton Fortune (all born between 1974 and 1977). These players all came of age during the dying days of apartheid, when South Africa was economically, culturally and geographically isolated in a way that it isn’t today. It is difficult to know for sure but the deprivations of apartheid might have sharpened these players’ hunger. Playing overseas would have been enormously attractive. Heading north was generally advisable for an ambitious young football man, even if few had any clear idea of what Europe entailed.

Those who moved to Europe played in robust, relatively well-organised amateur leagues before turning professional. (The only possible exception to the list of six above would be Fortune. He was at Spurs from a very young age, so in many ways would have escaped some of the hardship and social unrest experienced by the others, particularly the older players like Radebe and Masinga). Football then was seen in the black community as carrying the flame of black identity. Rugby was the white man’s game; football was the black man’s sport and a form of opposition. With the cutting of development budgets and the refusal of teachers in township schools to coach the sport after hours, some of the traditional wellsprings of football have dried up almost completely.  

Nowadays the best of the export crop are Thulani Serero at Ajax Amsterdam and Kamogelo Mokhotjo at FC Twente, both having been dropped into Europe from South African clubs with strong Dutch connections. Serero’s Ajax Cape Town are twinned with the mother club in Amsterdam while Mokhotjo came from SuperSport, who once had strong links with Feyenoord but have since established a less satisfactory relationship with Spurs. Elsewhere in Europe, South African players here and there are scattered across Belgium and Scandinavia. In England, South Africans are playing at clubs like Bournemouth, Doncaster Rovers and Crystal Palace. This, it is fair to say, is hardly the glamour world of European football.

So why should South Africa, winner of its first African Cup of Nations tournament at home in 1996, beating a good Ghana side en route to the final before accounting for Tunisia, have declined so markedly? Can the comparative financial health of the players really account for such a marked drop in standards? Or is South African football suffering from a sporting equivalent of cultural cringe, the idea that now South Africa is once again a member of that global community, able to receive European football in vast quantities on television, able to host a World Cup, that the magnitude of what needs to be done to become competitive again is simply too intimidating? The shrinking of borders and horizons has not led to a ‘can do’ attitude but rather its opposite: the idea that with the world being so close, it is indeed a far more frightening place than was first thought.

If there isn’t a pathological element to South African under-achievement, there is certainly a lack of confidence and insecurity in front of goal. In the PSL in 2013-14, Bernard Parker, the leading goal scorer in the league, scored 10 goals in 27 matches for Chiefs – and this is a man with Eredivisie experience. This might charitably be explained by the fact that with the monthly grant at stake and the threat of relegation so real for poorer teams, mediocre sides’ first aim is not to lose. Defences are deep and counter attacking-football (often badly played) is the norm. Hunt might have put his finger on it best when he said,“In my day at poky Hellenic, players like Grant Young and Gerald Stober were banging in 20 goals a season. Defences have become better and teams more compact but the quality of the service is poor and the strikers make bad runs.”

As I write this, Amajita, the South African under-20 side, have just qualified for next year’s African Youth Championship in Senegal, beating Cameroon 3-2 home and away. The side is a talented one but qualification of this kind is not a regular occurrence. The McCarthy, Fortune and Aaron Mokoena generation took South Africa to the Sydney Olympics, beating Brazil 3-1 before losing their final group game to Slovakia and failing to progress to the knockout stage. Sometimes we qualify, more often we don’t. This might be the fate of our national sides in a nutshell: capable of magic on their day but strangely skittish when it comes to consistency. Niang thinks consistency is a problem, deriding the ‘Johnnie Walker syndrome’ that afflicts many of the league’s more glamorous players. “They can have a really good midweek game, ”he says, “then they arrive drunk or hungover at the next practice or play the next game badly. When a European scout comes out what he’s looking for is consistency. He wants return.”

Black youngsters tend to play soccer on poor pitches and are often coached by well-meaning but under-qualified coaches, something the association is slowly attempting to turn around. As one of their development evangelists, Robin Petersen, told me: “In Spain the ratio of highly qualified coaches to players is 1:17, here it’s more like 1:200. We have to change that by judicious use of the monies we raise and that are in our coffers from the World Cup ticket sale profits.”

There might, of course, be a deeper, more abstract answer to why South African football seems wedded to under-achievement. Township youngsters often receive little parental support, a fact noted by Khoza and many others. Despite the advances of democracy – electrification, universal schooling, improved public transport – the legacy of apartheid is still very tangible for many of South Africa’s poor. The township game, once glowingly referred to as ‘piano and shoeshine’, looks anachronistic when compared to the quick, selfless and highly athletic modern game of today. Perhaps crucially, from the children’s point of view, there is frequently no mom to bundle you into the estate car after practice or on hand with an energy drink and an encouraging word. The apartheid legacy expresses itself in obvious ways but has also deformed what the Europeans would call ‘mentality’. South African footballers’ confidence is fragile. They play the game without love. Therein comes a sadness and a peculiarly South African form of melancholy.

Neither Serero or Mokhotjo are regulars under the new Bafana coach, ‘Shakes’ Mashaba, an old-style coach with an edge of sniffy pride to his parochialism. ‘Shakes’, it is probably fair to say, is rather proud of the fact that he isn’t going to be seen anytime soon sipping a skinny latte in a patisserie in Knightsbridge conversing with an agent in a continental European language. Fears abound among the more discerning that he might ultimately take the national side backwards. Early results have been impressive. In the opening two rounds of qualifiers
for the Africa Cup of Nations early next year, his side banged three goals past
 a very ordinary Sudan in Khartoum. A couple of days later in chilly Cape Town, the Super Eagles were held to a 0-0 draw. The Nigeria game showed a more bumptious Bafana than had been seen in a while, although such confidence didn’t translate into a goal against the African champions. Under Mashaba, Bafana are relentlessly busy and that approach brought four points against Congo. The murder of the goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa has hit the squad hard, but they finished qualifying with another win over Sudan and a 2-2 draw in Nigeria that eliminated the holders. Given they were 2-0 up after three-quarters of the game, there was frustration that South Africa couldn’t hold on for a first competitive win over Nigeria, but still, they head to Equatorial Guinea with an unusual sense of expectation.