How to stop losing

James Myburgh writes on what we can learn from Germany's great footballing reforms

In the post-apartheid-era the success of newly-readmitted South African sports teams in international competitions played a key role in smoothing the transition to democratic rule, and fostering nation building.

Recently however it has become clear that the country’s three main professional sporting codes, as measured by the performance of the national men’s teams, are currently on various points along a trajectory of decline.

The Springboks - now ranked fourth in the world – have recently made a habit of losing to rugby teams they have never lost to before (Japan, Argentina, Ireland at home) and are falling ever further behind their historic rivals, the All Blacks. The Proteas have slid, over the past few years, from 1st to 6th place in the ICC test rankings. And Bafana Bafana has fallen from 20th spot in the FIFA World Rankings (1996 and 2000) to 68th place today.

This national malaise is a source of unhappiness, dissatisfaction and, increasingly, racial division. There is little consensus though as to how to even start arresting the country’s sporting decline.

The critical question then is what does South Africa need to do to stop losing as a nation?


Two decades of ANC interference in sport

Over the past two decades the dominant influence on the development of sport in South Africa has been the African National Congress government and its policy of racial “transformation”.

As the ANC made very clear, from 1997 onwards, it would be seeking to progressively enforce ‘demographic representivity’ or an ‘equality of outcomes’ at all levels, and in all spheres of life, in South Africa. All institutions should be progressively made to conform, in other words, to the racial proportions of society as a whole.

In order to enforce this objective, and overcome resistance to such change, the ANC felt entitled to extend its influence and control over all institutions within society, including in sport. As then Minister of Sport and Recreation Steve Tshwete declared in parliament in October 1997 "There is going to be interference from the Government in every sphere of life and activity in South Africa, including sport. I repeat, there is going to be interference in sport".

Sporting codes were not spared from the party’s policy of cadre deployment. As the 1998 Cadre Policy and Deployment Strategy put it, the ANC must “strengthen our leadership in all other sectors of social activity including: - the economy; education, science and technology; sports, recreation, arts and culture; mass popular organisation; and, mass communication.”

Sports administrators who did not buy into the ANC’s race ideology, and insisted instead on principles of equality of opportunity, became a particular target. After he was forced to resign as President of the United Cricket Board by ANC pressure – to the cheers of many in the media - Ray White noted that the UCB had become "little more than the cricket organ of the ANC.”

Over the past two decades then the ANC has, if not in direct control of the main sporting bodies, has been in a position to wield huge influence over them.

The party has used this power to enforce race quotas in representative sports teams, beginning at the lower levels. The objective being that, over time, these be progressively tightened and extended upwards “until national and regional demographic representation figures are reached.”

This means, in effect, that sooner or later every national team will have to be overwhelming black African, with (at most) a few remaining places shared between sportsmen classified as white, Coloured or Indian.

The ability of the ANC to enforce ‘demographic representivity’ on the national cricket and senior rugby teams has been, up until recently, limited however by the competitive nature of international sport.

This has meant that South African youngsters, from racial minority backgrounds, could still aspire to compete at the top level; even as the ANC was successfully closing down other merit-based avenues of opportunity for them, especially in the state.

An objectively irrational focus on rugby, in particular, has subsequently developed in a number of private and ‘Model C’ schools over the past two decades. This can at least partly be explained by the desire for recognition by talented youngsters (and their parents) prevented from having their abilities recognised in other fields of South African endeavour by ANC racialism.

For the ANC government then the success or failure of its policies in sport is measured predominantly by the degree to which racial quotas are hit or missed. If sports codes meet targets in board composition, administration, coaching, or national team players they are regarded as having succeeded. If they fail to meet these targets they have failed.

This focus is given visual expression in the tables of the so-called Eminent Persons Group 2014/15 EPG Transformation Status Report – prepared under the leadership of Dr Willie Basson. The achievement of race targets (60% black African or ‘generic black’) are met with a tick within a green circle, the failure to achieve them with a cross within a red circle.

What a focus on equality of outcomes looks like:

The personal qualities or performance of the individuals concerned are regarded as irrelevant, their race is all that matters. Thus, the management of soccer – by far the most under-performing of South Africa’s main sports codes – gets a series of ticks in green for meeting demographic race targets in board composition, administration, coaching and the make-up of the national team.

Even the most brilliant, inspiring, dynamic coaches or administrators are denounced with a cross in an angry red circle if their presence in their sport means that a race target is missed.

It is not clear what has actually been achieved by two decades of ANC hegemony over sport in South Africa.

The ANC government has certainly had the opportunity during this time, as well as all the resources of the state at its disposal, to build-up a system whereby children in historically deprived areas had (steadily improving) access to organised, competitive sport in codes of their choice.

A critical role here had to be played by schools largely staffed and controlled by the ANC-supporting SADTU members who constitute a large part of the activist base of the liberation movement.

Yet, as the EPG report seems to acknowledge, the ANC government has achieved little in this regard. As it observes there is a lack of structured support in the townships as “many teachers do not see the organisation of sport as part of their day-to-day teaching activities”. It states:

“Primary and senior school sport participation is impacted by a number of factors that are dominated by resource constraints, including insufficient number of teachers to organise under-age teams to participate in structured inter-school engagement and inadequate facilities and a shortage of trained coaches and officials. Other than in old model C schools with a history and tradition of sport involvement, the number of participating schools is low in the majority of codes surveyed”.

To the degree to which South Africa is producing world class sportsmen and women then, of all colours, it is still through ongoing organised sport in elite private, former Model C and other racial minority schools. Merit-based shifts in the racial composition of provincial and national cricket and rugby teams have been driven largely by the changing demographics of these schools.

As far as ‘equality of outcomes’ is concerned the EPG report states:

“The overall picture is not good. Only 6 [out of 19] national senior representative teams, basketball (100 %), volleyball (98%), table-tennis (94 %), football (91 %), gymnastics (73 %) and amateur boxing (90 %) have achieved the set 60 % generic Black target. Corresponding figures for athletics (50 %), cricket (45 %), rugby (42 %) (all part of the original pilot programme and signatories to the performance agreement to achieve self-set targets by 2018) and chess (49 %) generic Black profiles varied between 40 % and 50 %, which corresponds with 60 % to 50 % White teams.

The remaining codes – netball (39 %), another signatory to the ministerial barometer agreement, rowing (19 %), hockey (17 %), and swimming (13 %) – reported generic Black demographic representation figures well below 60 %.”

The EPG report also repeatedly complains that “Black African representation in most national teams” is “changing more slowly than that of Coloureds and Indians” and it suggests that new forms of race quotas are needed to remedy this.

For the ANC government the failures of “transformation” are to be remedied by ever-more “transformation”, this time more rigorously applied. In May Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula, stated that he would be penalising cricket, rugby, athletics and netball for failing to meet the required racial quotas.

When confronted with a failing policy it is sometimes worth asking if there may not be a better, fairer and ultimately more productive alternative at hand? Here it perhaps useful to turn to and examine the reforms pursued by Germany in its effort to reverse its declining fortunes in international football.

How Germany reformed football

After World War Two West Germany was one of the great powers of world football. They were World Cup champions in 1954, 1974 and 1990 and runners-up in 1966, 1982 and 1986. It was widely believed that Germany’s reunification, in October 1990, would make that country unbeatable in soccer. By the end of that decade, however, it was clear that the opposite had happened. Germany was no longer able to regularly beat the large footballing nations, and was increasingly vulnerable to losing to the smaller ones.

In the 1998 World Cup Germany were knocked out 3-0 by Croatia in the quarter-finals. In the 2000 European Championships the German team (average age 28) failed to make it past the group stage after drawing with Romania, then losing to England and Portugal. In the 2002 World Cup Germany did make the finals (losing 2-0 to Brazil) but this was largely the result of a lucky draw whereby the team was able to scrape through against smaller nations.

A new low point was reached in September 2003 when the team drew 0-0 with Iceland (population 300,000), on the away leg, in the European Championship qualifiers. In 2004 the national team (average age 27) was again knocked out of the European Championships in the group rounds after drawing with Latvia and the Netherlands and losing to the Czech Republic. Germany had, by now, fallen to 19th in the FIFA world rankings.

Germany was also still playing a style of football that, while having brought it great success in the past, was increasingly outmoded by the 1990s. To the extent that the national team (and its top clubs) were able to prevail against the competition, it was only through playing a negative, ugly and joyless game. Like all weaker teams trying to win against better opponents they would seek to stifle and exhaust the opposition on defence while trying to sneak victory through a lucky break or an opportunistic goal at the end.

The story of how this dire situation was turned around is the subject of Raphael Honigstein’s book Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World, published by Yellow Jersey Press 2016.

Although there were certainly issues with the management of the national team, which Honigstein describes, the main structural problem facing Germany was that it was running out players able to compete at the highest level.

The 1995 Bosman ruling by European Court of Justice – whereby footballers secured freedom of movement within the EU – had seen a narrowing of the quality gap between large and small nations, as well as an influx of foreigners into the Bundesliga.

The percentage of foreign players in Germany’s top league had risen from 17% in 1993-1994 to 49% in 2003/2004. The top clubs in Germany that year – Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich – were predominantly made up of foreign professionals.

Over these ten years the number of German players in the top flight decreased by a fifth, despite an increase in squad sizes. Even this figure understates the extent of the problem, given that foreign imports were filling many of the key positions on the pitch, and getting much of the game time.

The national team was also totally reliant on two great players in its ranks: midfielder Michael Ballack, who had received his training under the old (now dismantled) East-German system, and goalie Oliver Kahn. If Ballack in particular was unavailable (as in the 2002 World Cup final), or underperformed (as in Iceland), the national team invariably found itself in serious trouble

Honigstein notes that, at this time, the debate around Germany’s decline as a footballing power was as outdated as many of the tactics still being employed on the pitch. When the national team did poorly the players were denounced for not trying hard enough or Ballack was condemned for not being enough of a leader. “It was obvious that things were going badly wrong”, Honigstein writes, “but the complex reasons behind the mess couldn’t be properly articulated. Scapegoats were being sought instead.”

Although it was widely accepted that there was a talent shortage, there was little consensus that anything could be done about this. The problem was often ascribed to complex and insoluble sociological issues:

“Football was suffering thanks to the appeal of video games and individual activities, like going to the gym, the theory went. There were also mutterings about the current generation of teenagers being maybe a little too comfortable and well-off; too soft to defend their birth right against the post-Bosman influx of foreigners.”


The reform process was led at the national team level by Jürgen Klinsmann – a member of the team that had triumphed in the 1990 World Cup and 1996 European Championships – who was appointed coach in 2004, after the preferred candidate had decided not to take up the position. Although not an expert coach himself he shook up the national team set up, modernised the training, implemented a more aggressive style of play, and put together a strong management and coaching team which remains in place to this day. He took the national team to a respectable third place finish in the 2006 World Cup, playing a more attractive style of football. His assistant, Joachim Löw, took over as team coach after he stepped down in July 2006.

There are obvious limits to the miracles that a national coach can perform, the most obvious one being the quality of the players he can draw upon. Here Honigstein greatly credits the reforms implemented by Dietrich Weise, who had earlier achieved great success as youth coach for West Germany in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and who was brought back in August 1996 by the German Football Association (DFB) to fix the youth set up.

The basic problem that Weise and his assistant, Ulf Schott, diagnosed during several months of research at the start of their term, was that while there were enough young talented players in Germany “we just didn’t get to them. And the ones we did get to didn’t spend enough training with the ball.”

Weise found that there were big differences between facilities in the regions and talented youngsters who failed to be spotted and recruited by a big club, early on, were falling through the cracks. “We thought that was unfair”, he told Honigstein, “every kid playing in Germany should have the same opportunities. We also found that not all big clubs were doing as well as they could, in relation to their financial resources.”

His first proposed reform then, presented in early 1998, was the introduction of a comprehensive talent-spotting and development scheme. This proposal was initially stalled as the DM 2,5m (€1,25m) cost was viewed as too high. But Germany’s quarter-final exit in the 1998 World Cup – and the victory of the academy-trained Les Bleus in the competition - brought about a reversal.

Initially, 121 centres or stützpunkte were set up across the country to provide two hours of individual, technical coaching for 4 000 thirteen to seventeen year olds once a week, and to identify talented players. The idea was that ultimately everyone should have a centre within 25 km of their home – enabling every youngster, even in the most out-of-the-way areas, to have access to a first class footballing education and the chance to be noticed.

The next stage of reform was the requirement that all Bundesliga clubs establish academies that had to meet progressively stricter requirements. Again, while this reform was already in the works, it was given additional impetus – and any residual resistance overcome - by the national team’s abysmal showing in the 2000 European Championships, along with Germany securing the right to host the 2006 World Cup. All teams in the top division were required to build performance centres by 2001-02, a requirement extended to second division clubs soon thereafter.

In 2001 a rule was put in place requiring that all Bundesliga clubs, with a couple of historical exceptions, be majority owned (50% + 1) by their supporters. This meant that foreign billionaires could not, as in England, buy a club, import expensive foreign professionals, and go on to win the league. Because of their relative poverty at the time many Bundesliga teams were willing to give opportunities on the pitch to (inexpensive) young talent coming through their academies. The presence of such home-grown talent on the pitch also proved popular with supporters. The training youngsters received in the academies was, over time, fine-tuned to prepare players to step into the club first teams at a young age.

The German Football Association also sought to change the way football was played. As the Guardian noted in a 2013 article “The DFB wanted to move away from playing in straight lines and relying on ‘the German mentality’ to win matches. Instead coaches focused on developing fluid formations that required the sort of nimble, dexterous players who would previously have been overlooked because of their lack of physical strength.”

These reforms came together in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa where a young, talented team made the semi-finals, playing an exciting style of football. The team was (mostly) made up of players who had been through the academy system and, as Schott told Honigstein, “could do things that previous national team players couldn’t do. That’s when the public became aware that the reforms were beginning to bear fruit. That’s when the clubs realised they were adding value.”

In 2013 two German club teams – Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich – made the finals of the UEFA Champions League. The following year Germany won the World Cup in Brazil for the first time in twenty-four years. Twenty-one out of twenty-three squad members were products of the academy system (the exceptions being striker Miroslav Klose and goalie Roman Weidenfeller whose professional careers predated it.) And as Weise proudly told Honigstein, at least ten of those players were from out-of-the-way places whose talents would have been overlooked were it not for the stützpunkt system.

Today, huge sums are spent by the DFB and the Bundesliga clubs on football development. The number of full-time professional youth coaches has increased from 100 in 2000 to 400 in 2015. Honigstein writes that of the 196 000 teenage boys playing football every week, 14 000 receive weekly lessons at the network of (now) 366 stützpunkte, “where they are trained by experts and watched by scouts.” 800 of the most talented youngsters, are accepted into academies every year. The annual cost of the DFB’s network has risen to €21m a year, while the thirty six Bundesliga clubs had spent over €1bn on youth development since 2001.

The following map gives visual representation to this system. On the left are the locations of the stützpunkte across Germany, on the right the location of the academies.

What a focus on equality of opportunity looks like:

Although Honigstein does not use the term the underlying philosophy behind the German football reforms of the early 2000s was one of ‘equality of opportunity’, in both the affirmative and proscriptive senses of the term.

In the affirmative sense, a system was put in place whereby every talented youngster could be identified, early on, and given an excellent footballing training. The Germans insisted that this not be at the expense of an academic education, and every footballing academy was paired with ‘elite sport schools’.

This has meant that middle class parents have been more amenable to their children entering into the academy system; knowing that if they ultimately did not make the cut as football professionals (as most wouldn’t) they could still pursue a more normal university career later on.

In the proscriptive sense of the term, progress within the system meanwhile is on the basis of individual ability and application (not skin or eye colour), within a highly competitive, pluralistic, system. Children from middle class or poor or immigrant backgrounds can and do make it to the very top.


What are the lessons of the German example for South Africa?

In Germany the process of reform, as described by Honigstein, was driven by a handful of individuals with the insight to recognise the underlying problems, and how to go about fixing them. Although there was some resistance to their ideas, they were given the DFB’s backing to implement these reforms. Success then bred success, with best practices being picked up and applied across the board.

As the German and European example more generally makes clear, the success of national footballing teams is largely determined by the strength of the structures on the ground: Are the youth participating in leagues, are the best and brightest being talent-spotted and given high level coaching, do such players then have the opportunity to receive a first class footballing education, and so on? A statistic commonly used to illustrate this point is the following: In 2014 England had all of 205 coaches with the UEFA pro-license, the highest qualification available. Germany meanwhile had 1 304 and Spain 2 353.

Reform then is difficult, especially initially. Talented, committed and innovative people have to be found and appointed (whatever their colour). Conservatism, narrow regional interests and institutional inertia need to be fought and overcome. New structures and institutions meanwhile have to be built up and made to work. Everyone in the system has to keep working at improving it, until success is achieved. 

By contrast, ANC-style race 'transformation' is easy. It takes very little to apply a racial quota to a sports team of children or even adults. All you need is an idiot with a pencil. If you make the position lucrative enough there will be no shortage of applicants with the requisite qualifications. 

Finally, successful national sports teams, as with nations, are built upon principles of equality of opportunity - everyone must be given a real chance to succeed in life and no one must be prevented or hindered from doing so on the basis of their race.

In South Africa this requires, on the one hand, a sustained national effort to (re)build sporting structures in the townships and rural areas, and, on the other, the abolition of the race quota system in sport. 

The current focus on equality of outcomes is poisonous to real achievement.