Amajita take on hosts Zambia in the under-20 Africa Cup semi-final on Wednesday, March 8 at Heroes Stadium in Lusaka.
Thanks to making it in the last four, SA's already qualified for the World Cup. For the first time in our history there's consistency in the junior ranks as we're qualifying for Africa Cups and World Cups. We did it in the U17 division too.
So, even though there's usually a sense of cynicism in SA when we expect the likes of Nigeria and Ghana to dominate with starlets, our recent progress proves what we already suspected - there is talent in this country. We just need to know how to nurture it and with our infrastructure, we have the potential to move further ahead than our rivals.
Over the last two decades one (of the many) problems is that we haven't utlised our facilities and potential properly. When Dr Danny Jordaan took over at Safa this was set as a priority and the results are showing that even at this early stage, our plans are working.
I say an early stage, because you can't develop youth in two or three years. It's at least a 10 year plan, and development never stops.
Many years ago I wrote about a certain problem in South African football, and that problem hasn't been resolved yet. We lack teenage starlets. Even an introduction of a few at a time in PSL clubs each season would go a long way in improvement. Ajax Cape Town has done a great job in recent years with the likes of Keagan Dolly, Thulani Serero and Rivaldo Coetzee. However I'm looking at bigger stars than that. Coetzee's a good start in this age range and a rare exception but he hasn't kicked on in the way we've hoped yet. Ideally, there should be options for quicker progress.
Around the year 2000 we were developing our Under-23 squad and there began our greatest generation. Most of our legendary players made the step up to European football around the age of 22 and 25. That's already too old to make a significant impact. Sorry to the blue half of Merseyside, but Everton's not the ceiling we should aspire toward. Ajax Amsterdam's not the force they used to be either. Of course you get late bloomers (like Didier Drogba), but we can't be a country that only banks on late bloomers.
The Multichoice Diski Challenge is making a vital difference in strengthening the depth at PSL clubs. This is a program we should've had for two decades already. However we need more teenagers to blend in with experienced players at this level.
As we learn from Europe, it's no use for the most talented teenagers to only play with teenagers. They need to mix it up with the experienced campers and this is how we fasttrack their progress. The higher level aim should be for players between the ages of 17 and 20. Move them there, then by 19 and 21 they should be moving up into the PSL. Then you will see our football take on a whole new dimension by the time they're at their peak.
Dolly's being talked about like our great young talent right now, but he's already 24. Compare that to the likes of Eden Hazard who signed for Chelsea at the age of 21. We should be trying to match the best, and not always looking up at such players like stars beyond us. The only true starlet we've ever had, was Benni McCarthy. We need more at this level, and let's hope the likes of Luther Singh will be next.
One mistake we made under Shakes Mashaba is that we thought Vision 2022 was to throw some kids in the deep end. No, that's not development. Youth development is to nurture the kids at a high enough level, to have good programs from childhood all the way to impress SA U15, U17 and U19/20 levels where we're consistently beating the best in Africa. After a few years of laying the foundation, only then they will adapt properly to the step up.
Legends: Neil Tovey ahead of Lucas Radebe on the stage
Safa technical director Neil Tovey is optimistic about the progress made by SA's junior teams lately.
"It’s quite a great achievement, not just for the u20 side, but for South African football in general. This shows there is gradual development and with junior teams qualifying for major tournaments, that goes to show the future is really bright," said Tovey to Safa.
"The u17 boys’ team went to Chile for the World Cup two years ago, and now about eight players who qualified that team are in the current u20 squad that has booked their place in South Korea. This is what we mean when we talk about development. Just last year the u23 team went to the Rio Olympics, and to continue the natural progression of our national teams, Bafana Bafana must qualify for Russia 2018," added Tovey.
As Safa pointed out, in three matches at the U20 Afcon, Amajita have scored nine goals but conceded six. Being a legendary defender, that's not going to impress the former Kaizer Chiefs player.
"We have to defend a lot better, we have to organise ourselves collectively as a team, not just the defence but all the way from the strikers," said Tovey.
"We have to start working now on our ability to defend properly. From what I have seen, there are too many gaps between departments when we defend but I hope they will be more compact going forward.
"This is not about playing a defensive game, but being more organised when we lose the ball and how we adjust so we can assist one another. At the moment the communication seems poor in some areas and needs to be made better."