Is South Africa in danger of being the first World Cup host not to reach the second round? So disappointing have recent performances been that President Thabo Mbeki suggested changing the Bafana Bafana (Boys, Boys) nickname to something more intimidating. While there's little chance of that, pressure is mounting on Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who during the World Cup Preliminary Draw explained the challenges he's faced since taking the helm last February.
"Today I was talking to a coach here who was saying I should have a look at a player who was young and gifted." said Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title. "The player he said was young is 24! Players mature too late here."
South Africa qualified for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, but failed to reached the finals in 2006. Parreira says the South Africa federation (SAFA) and the nation's professional clubs have not done enough on the youth development front.
"The structure of the country doesn't help," said Parreira, the Brazilian who also coached World Cup teams in 1982 (Kuwait), 1990 (UAE), 1998 (Saudi Arabia) and 2002 (Brazil). "They don't have under-15 and under-18 leagues. So if we decide to go for youth, where are they? If this country wants to get back to being one of the best teams in Africa, it is going to have to organize youth leagues."
Parreira said that PSL teams, who are allowed five foreigners per squad, rely too much on foreign players instead of giving young South Africans a chance to gain experience.
"Another problem is that they don't bring in the best foreign players because they are already in Europe," he said. "The foreigners they bring in are not top players. It's not expensive to bring in a player from Zambia, for example. The foreign players here are not models for the young players."
Parreira has also been frustrated with the lack of cooperation from the Premier Soccer League clubs. Before its 1-0 loss to the USA in Johannesburg on Nov. 17, he was able to welcome foreign-based players such as Captain Aaron Mokoena and Benni McCarthy (Blackburn Rovers) and Steven Pienaar (Everton) into training camp five days before the game, but local clubs didn't release their players until 48 hours before the match.
Parreira is also trying to change the playing style.
"The way they play league soccer is not the way we want the national team to play," he says. "It's too much direct soccer. Too much battling. We need to play a possession game and take advantage of the players' skills and tricks."
Three days after the loss to the USA, South Africa, using domestic players, beat Canada 2-0 on two goals by Teko Modise, the 25-year-old Orlando Pirates midfielder who Parreira hopes may be able to fill the playmaker's role.
"Like all teams, we're looking for playmakers and finishers," says Parreira.
Strikers McCarthy and Sibusiso Zuma, who plays in Germany for Arminia Bielefeld, will be 32 and 35, respectively, by the 2010 finals.
Parreira's next big test will come at the 2008 African Nations Cup in January in Ghana, where Bafana Bafana is grouped with Tunisia Senegal and Angola.
And although South Africa is an automatic qualifier for the World Cup it's hosting, it will take part in qualifying play because it doubles as qualifying for the 2010 African Nations Cup. Bafana Bafana is grouped with Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone.