Dec 17, 2008

Sport - Football;SA football revels in new riches

Alex Capstick
BBC News, Johannesburg


The gleaming new stadium in Soweto is a stunning symbol of the transformation that is taking place in club football in South Africa.
The rickety open stands, the uneven playing surface and the sub-standard facilities for players and fans have been replaced by a state-of-the-art venue.

At the official opening the place was packed with 35,000 people of all ages, sexes and sizes, dressed in the black and white colours of their adored team, the Orlando Pirates.


Each and every one seemed to be blowing a long plastic brightly coloured instrument known as a vuvuzela.

The sound has been described as like a swarm of angry bees.

It was unrelenting and helped to create a terrific atmosphere in a magnificent stadium which caters for the modern, sophisticated fan.

It is the first of its kind in a South African township, but more will follow.

Almost overnight Premier League Soccer, or PSL as it is known, has become wealthy.


A television contract worth in the region of $27m (£18m) a year for the next five seasons has been secured.

Clubs have attracted lucrative sponsorship deals. Players too are reaping the benefits.

The average wage has risen from $400 (£268) to $1,600 (£1,070) a month. A top player can earn as much as $20,000 (£13,380) a month.

The change has been staggering.

Not long ago South Africa's professional league was ranked 50th in the world in terms of revenue streams.

According to PSL's chairman Irvin Khoza it is now the seventh richest.

Staying home

It has made him very proud, but he wants it to be a blueprint for the rest of Africa.


"It is a remarkable achievement that might act as an impetus to encourage other countries in Africa to formalise their leagues."

Mr Khoza, who is also chairman of the South African 2010 World Cup organising committee, believes he has a product capable of converting the millions of South African football fans who are obsessed with European football, especially the English Premier League.

And he hopes the money flowing into the PSL will help persuade South Africa's best players to stay.

"The income that we have generated is to make sure that we give them competitive salaries to keep them in the country."

It is a bold vision but one that does not convince everyone, even those who are closely connected with PSL.


Ted Dimitru, a former coach of South Africa's national team, is now in charge of youth development at one of the wealthiest clubs in PSL, Mamelodi Sundowns.

He is worried PSL clubs will spend their new-found wealth in the search for a quick fix, and not for long term sustainability.

"The reality is that too many clubs are not investing in youth but are buying expensive overseas players. Economically we are are ahead, technically we are behind," he says.

Warning

Mr Dimitru is an advocate of the academy system and is concerned that clubs will bring in mediocre players, at the expense of nurturing local talent, a scenario that will not help improve the quality of the national team - the 2010 World Cup hosts are in a run of terrible form.


He had this stark warning: "If we fail to ensure a proportion of the money from the next TV deal is invested in youth we will see empty stadia."

But these are heady times for youngsters who dream of one day making a living out of football in South Africa.

Sixteen-year-old Lorenzo was an excited onlooker at the grand opening of Soweto's new stadium.

He plays for the junior team at the Orlando Pirates. He is impressed with the flashy, brash image of the new look PSL, but it has not altered his ultimate ambition.

"My future plans are to see myself playing overseas. I want to play with the world's best, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi."


Lorenzo's friend Kabella sits alongside, soaking up the atmosphere.

European-based football scouts have been watching him, something he has noticed.

Soweto is a tough place to live and, given the opportunity, he too would leave.

"There are a lot of people out there who are suffering. They don't have food as we are speaking right now," he says.

"I don't want to see myself in that situation. That's why I am willing to play overseas."

The boys' attention then quickly turns to events on the pitch.

They witnessed Orlando Pirates baptise their new stadium with a rapturously-received victory.

It was intoxicating, although it seems not enough to distract the next generation of South Africa footballers from pursuing a move abroad.

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