By Mandla & Andile Dladla
A degree of unlikeness for players that come to the SAFA Transnet football school of excellence is that unlike other academies in the country, they come in at the age of 13 or 14 and are registered for grade Six at the school.
Among the requirements of the school is that the boys stay at the hostels within the school premises and play football everyday of their lives. The first three years are spent teaching them the basics of football and not focusing too much on the competitiveness.
The idea is to inculcate a love of the game to the boys and allow them to fall in love with touching the ball. Then during the final two years they are introduced into the competitive nature of football and allow them a platform to be more technical.
In its prime, the school has produced some of the finest prospect from this country, including Sipho Nunens, Daine Klate and certainly the most famous graduate of them all – Steven “Schillo” Pienaar who went on to star for Ajax Amsterdam and Everton in the English Premier League.
“Transnet bankrolls the School of Excellence and is the only sponsor that we have and annually they pump in an amount of R21-m to provide for the educational needs of the pupils as well as their football and accommodation including meals for 120 boys between Grades 8-12,” said Buti Lerefolo chairman of the School of Excellence.
“The board can and has not made that decision to seek sponsorship elsewhere and this they can do if it’s necessary or a need arises for expansion on that kind of an area”, added Lerefolo who is also on the Board of Trustees for the facility.
Lerefolo expressed concern about an increasing number of “Fly-by-Night” Academies flourishing across the country and he believes that this is due to the fact that as a country, we are not doing things correctly.
“Let’s start with the fact that football and sports in general is generally not played regularly at schools so ideally you want kids to start playing the game right from primary level in order to get some sort of coaching and identify the talented ones and then catch them young.
“When you get to a place like the school of Excellence, it is really the talented among those that have received proper coaching at an early age that seem to have an advantage and the ability to learn quicker and thus their prospect of becoming professional once they complete Matric are enhanced.
“If we had proper structures at primary and high schools across the country as we should be doing, it would be much easier for people to establish some sort of academies.
“But like I mentioned earlier that at R20-million annually it’s quite an expensive business for the school of Excellence. However, the returns if you are managing the players all the way up to professional level would justify such an expenditure.
“Something that we are currently not doing right in South Africa is that we have athletes in sporting codes like cricket and rugby that are very well developed because both sports have specific targeted programs at primary moving all the way to high schools and universities.”
No wonder, reckons Lerefolo, the Proteas (cricket) and the Springboks (rugby) qualify for each and every World Cup. In fact, the Springboks have been crowned World Champions on three occasions since the advent of democracy in South Africa.
“My advice is that if you are going to run an academy you need to have one deep pocket and a lot of commercial partners. But if you want to run this thing with the intention to begin with a small kid all the way to an elite footballer, your return on investment would be to completely own those players so that you can sell them to other teams.
“The advantage we have is that all our students stay at the school so they basically do everything there so we have enough time to instil discipline and philosophy. We would not ordinarily have the challenges that other kids have like doing chores and run other errands like others in the communities.”
Balance is a function of the program of the coaches and teachers, in a sense that they get to play according to how the time table is structured. Before the Covid-19 pandemic they had programs where the boys would start their day at 7:00am with all the class work and play football in the afternoon.
“Normally we would have ordinarily six teams as per class and age bracket training and doing different things at different times. We have four pitches at the venue and so we are able to accommodate different players under different terms.
“The additional demand is that all our teams are registered with SAFA leagues so when others are out there competing, others would be training. Be it home or away matches and in certain instances we participate in many of the youth competitions that are available within SAFA.
We get validation of our players throughout when they keep playing in all the youth championships especially when they become eligible to represent the country at National U-17 U-20 levels and get to be selected.
“We currently have four players in the under 17 national team that is going to the 2021 Total Africa Cup of Nations which was due to take place in Morocco. The validation comes from national team coaches picking our players and scouts coming to our door who want our players and say that they would like to take them to other clubs.”
Lerefolo feels that the one thing that they could do better and should actually do better as a school is giving them sufficient exposure internationally and more competitive matches when they are in the final two years at the school.