Thursday, 31 July 2014

South Africa's teen terrors insist the World Cup CAN BE DONE: it's a simple route via Soweto, Cairo, Niger. Chile.

World Cup hopefuls: Molefi Ntseki with captain Nelson
Maluleka (right) at Eastgate Garden Court yesterday
THIS isn't a blog. This isn't a story. This isn't a revelation. It's a plea. When South Africa's Under 17 footballers take on Tanzania at Dobsonville on Saturday, they need support.

Coach Molefi Ntseki's AmaJimbos kick-off at the home of Moroka Swallows in Soweto at 3pm, carrying the nation's most realistic hopes of World Cup qualification in years. When they played the first leg at Azam FC a bumpy hour from Dar Es Salaam, over 5000 Tanzanians turned up to watch their Young Serengeti Warriors carve out a lucky 0-0 draw.

On Saturday, entrance is free. OUR BOYS NEED YOU. Yes, YOU.

I was there a fortnight ago. The atmosphere was electric. The locals were lively. The pitch was made of rubber. Our lads - singing and dancing their way through seriously difficult conditions on foreign soil - came away with a vital away draw. Our local television companies show no enthusiasm for showing live coverage of Bafana's youth, but it was some performance. Believe me.

Now they must beat Tanzania for the right to play Congo or Egypt in the final play-off before the African Youth Championship in Niger later this year. If they get to the semi-finals there, the top four African nations will qualify for World Cup in Chile next year.

Now that would be something to shout about for imposing boss Ntseki, his assistant Shawn Bishop, and goalkeeping coach Starvros Tsichlas, the indomitably cheerful trio who have created a unit worthy of the flag.

When I first embarked on the great AmaJimbos experiment, I expected the usual thing. Slightly chaotic selection processes, disorganization and heart-breaking failure. I mean, that's normal. Just look at our most recent senior efforts at AFCON, the World Cup and even lowly CHAN. But this was different. Everything is in place. They lugged their own water and sports drinks halfway up Africa, shrugged off several efforts of minor sabotage from our northern cousins… and never stopped smiling.

These AmaJimbos have convinced me. From the towering goalkeeper Mondli Mpotho to elegantly rugged centre-back Keanu Cupido (great name, great defender) to the nuggety captain Nelson Maluleke, who has a bigger engine than most Maseratis, they have the spine of a side which could carry this nation for years to come.

While SAFA president Danny Jordaan scrabbles for solutions to South Africa's footballing follies at the highest level with Shakes Mashaba off with our Under 20s on a friendly tour of West Africa, Ntseki may just carry the true keys to the calamitous castle in his huge hands. Come 2018 in Russia and/or 2022 in Qatar, the names I'm introducing you to may the ones on EVERY South Africans lips.

This weekend, after that first leg failure to score in Tanzania, coach Ntseki moves Vuyo Mantjie, the Harmony Academy midfielder, up front in an attempt to solve the all-pervading Bafana striking problems.

And Ntseki growls: "We have to find a way to score goals. We create chances, we have the team to go all the way to the World Cup. But you can't get there without somebody who sticks the ball in the goal."

In the build-up, the AmaJimbos played Botswana and Lesotho twice in friendlies. The team spirit built over the past month is tangible. Unlike most prospective professional footballers, these lads are modest, self-effacing… even shy. There is no talk of big cars and lucrative contracts. Just a quiet determination to be the best they can be.

But with Congo or Egypt next up - the young Pharaohs won the opening leg 1-0 at home - "Junior" Mantjie will be taking the second flight of his young life if they succeed on Saturday. Maluleka (see his video below, he's quite a lad) believes the job can be done: "I don't care, neither side can stop us."

You can see both Ntseki and Maluleka explaining their optimism below, in videos I recorded at the team hotel in Eastgate yesterday. Have a good look at young Nelson from Mpumalanga. It's not the last you'll see of that face. He's going all the way. But can the AmaJimbos?

Can it really be done after the grown-up failures the diski nation has suffered over the past four years? Can this bunch of eminently likable and unquestionably talented young lads REALLY get to a World Cup?

The answer is yes, they can. Dobsonville. Cairo. Niger. Chile. It's a long shot. But it would be made all the easier if a couple of thousands Sowetans can get there to support them on Saturday.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in 

Monday, 28 July 2014

At last the truth: Makhaya Ntini on the end of his Test career. Why was he unceremoniously DUMPED in 2009?

Out of Africa: Makhaya Ntini feels he was forced in to retirement
Makhaya Ntini has finally revealed the pain behind a 101-Test career which saw him take 390 wickets, claiming he was unceremoniously DUMPED by South Africa.

Amid obvious suggestions of racism, Ntini insists he was forced in to retirement against England at the end of 2009. The “Mdingi Express” says South African cricket officials rushed him out of the Proteas set up and gave him R200,000 to “keep me happy”.

Speaking like never before, Ntini told Robert Marawa he never understood why he was axed after playing for the Proteas against England in Durban in the 2009 Boxing Day Test. He explained how, at 32, he went to play country cricket in England and despite success in difficult conditions, he was never given another chance to add to his Test haul and will forever regret not matching Shaun Pollock's record 421 Test victims.

And he was never offered an explanation – or another contract - by Cricket South Africa. He laments: “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be the highest wicket taker in the history of South African cricket. But they never told me why I couldn’t carry on.”

Born in Mdingi near King Williams Town, Ntini laboured for a post-Apartheid decade under the pressure of being the Proteas ONLY African player, his tireless efforts making him a vital part of the South African set-up for 11 years after his debut in 1998. Since his retirement, no African player has gained a regular place in the South African side.

Ntini, the only South African to take 10 wickets at Lord’s in 2003, said: “The most important thing that everybody should know is: I had my own goals. I always competed with the best: Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara. Those are the guys who had to be in my bank.

“I knew I had to get them out early, not after they’ve got to their hundred.

“There’s only one guy, Malcolm Marshall, who inspired me. The West Indian style. I said to myself: If I can bowl the way he bowled, I knew I would get to the top. My first coach Malcolm Pybus made me watch his Marshall’s chest-on style, he never ran straight, always came in from an angle.

“I looked at that and said: “I can compare myself to that guy. From my early days at school where they had the concrete and I didn’t have cricket shoes. I used to bowl on the side of the concrete nets. I trained myself to hit the wicket no matter what. That’s why Marshall became my hero.

“I was one of the guys who believed bowling must talk for me. The ball must say everything. I just deliver it. The rest is up to the ball. I didn’t chirp or say anything.

“I’m not really one for statistics. Everyone looks at what they’ve achieved but I played the game because I loved it. I only realised about stats at the later stage, when you get the 100 wickets and everybody claps for you.

“They tell you all the heroes that you’ve passed. You start chasing the other guys. The minute you get there, you chase the next one.”

“101 Tests. 390 wickets. When we started playing cricket in the rural areas, we were told we were playing for fun. Forget about the people saying you could play for your country.

“Just to play for my province, Border. That was the first step. When I received the call from Dr Ali Bacher and Stephen Jones came running saying he’s got good news. I’ve been selected to play for South Africa. I said: “Ag, you’re not serious.”

Then Dr Bacher said I’d been selected. Jones said to me: “The game is starting at the weekend.” That was the green light, the opportunity I’d been waiting for. What every cricketer wishes for.

“I went home and broke the news. Against Sri Lanka in Cape Town. I only got one wicket, but it was a major wicket (Aravinda Da Silva).

“That phone call from Dr Bacher didn’t change my life as much as I thought. The big change was when Hansie Cronje gave me the cap on the morning of the game, at the ground as we were about to go on the field.

“Then it was a reality. A real cap. I was representing my country. The cap that you will never, ever forget in your dreams. That first cap.”

Dr Bacher also appared on Marawa's Friday night show, saying: “Makhaya proves you can come from humble beginnings, where life is very tough, very few resources. But you can get to the top with a good work ethic.

“He went to his first ever Baker’s mini-cricket in a rural area. He was identified, there was something special about his rhythm, the way he moved. He was barefoot. Greg Hayes, provincial development director spoke Xhosa fluently. He phoned me and said there’s something special here. He went off to Dale College.

“Makhaya is an inspiration. The call that meant most to me was when he took 10 wickets at Lord’s, he called Khaya Majola to tell him. That call meant so much to me when Majola called me and said thank you.

“The sad part about our cricket is that Makhaya is the ONLY BLACK AFRICAN to become a star in our cricket team. We need to ask HIM how we can change this.”

Ntini, in the process of setting up his own cricket academy, added: “We’re talking about the father figures. Without trying to give you a backhand, they come and tell you face to face. The Doc, I’m not just saying this because he found me, he became the father figure, the first person I would call.

“We became almost like family between the two of us. One of the people I could not make any decision without calling him. Doc would say: Get on to a plane and come to my house. And he would put all angles on the table and make the decision with me.

“He was the first one to know everything I was doing.”

 But Ntini, who ended his career as 12th best wicket-taker in the long history of Test cricket, then dropped the bombshell: “I wanted to be No 1 in this country. I didn’t just retire. I took a wicket against England in Centurion. We lost in Durban. We got to Cape Town and (Proteas coach) Mickey Arthur and his crew took me aside and said I was dropped."

I covered that series as an English cricket writer for the Evening Standard. I spoke to Ntini on Christmas Day in Durban. He was, as always, overly polite, as we discussed hotel accommodation and football allegiances. South Africa lost the Boxing Day Test by an innings and 98 runs.

Makhaya failed to take a wicket after taking two in the drawn opening Test in Centurion. Friedel de Wet, from the Lions, took five at SuperSport Park but was dropped for the second Test. When we arrived at Newlands to find Ntini had been axed and replaced by De Wet, there was general disbelief among the English media contingent.

Ntini recalls: “We only bowled once in Durban, we didn’t have a second innings. I became the one he dropped. But it was our batting that failed. What did I do wrong? I asked Mickey: “What must I do?” Mike Procter (head of selectors) says: “We have found somebody to replace you.” I didn’t know what to say.

“I turned round and asked: What must I do? Must I pack my bags and go?” I went home. I explained all this to my family. I told them I had to go and play in England. I needed 30 wickets for 421, the best set by Pollock.

“I did very well in England. I got the call, they said I wasn’t going to make the team. I didn’t argue. That was the end of me playing for South Africa.

“Mike Procter never explained what he meant by having somebody to replace me (De Wet never played another Test match after his two appearances in that drawn series against England). When I asked if I should pack my bags in Cape Town… when I asked about Johannesburg and the fourth Test against England. They had De Wet from the Lions.

“I can put so many things on the table. Every single card. But I couldn’t find any reason why, all of a sudden, I made South Africa not to win in Durban. We were bowled out twice in one game. How come I was the only one dropped and never to return? There were 11 of us.

“I was on the A-plus contract. They said we could never be dropped all the way to B. We should have gone straight to an A contract. But I actually lost my contract. I was never offered another deal. I’m telling you the honest truth.

“I went to the officials. I asked how does this work, from A-plus to no contract? They said: “We decided to give you R200,000 just to keep you going." It’s a sad thing. It’s one of the reasons I was running away from it.

“I’m not a person who likes to expose people. I was never raised that way.

“I called Doc (Ali Bacher). He asked me to come and sit down with him. People ask why I don’t write a book. I cannot because I want to keep these things to myself.

“I had to forgive myself first. For me to move on and face these people who blocked me.

“If we go in to the wicket taking side, I’m the only South African on the honours board at Lord's. The 10th since cricket has been played at that ground to take 10 wickets at headquarters.

“They guy I’m behind is Malcolm Marshall.”

When Marawa suggested Ntini was “becoming a threat” with his wicket taking, Makhaya refused to comment. Pushed further, as Marawa suggested race as the issue behind his premature axing, Ntini - typically - just laughed.

And then on to why no African cricketers feature in the current crop:“Yes, it’s one of the things I’m looking to do in the Eastern Cape with my academy at Mdatsane near East London. Teaching the kids not just about cricket but life skills. Teach them how to behave, how to control their goods. I was so lucky to have people so positive around me.

“They always ask me why I’m smiling. I say it’s a sad thing if you’re not. You’d better smile now, forget everything that’s bad inside your head. That’s the only thing that keeps me going."

Thanks to the excellent Robert Marawa for this interview on MetroFM last Friday.

 SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

SHAKES MASHABA FOR BAFANA: South Africa take the sensible option, but will it bring success?

He's back: Shakes Mashaba
COME on, admit it. The naming of Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba as South African’s new national head coach on Saturday was a bit of an anti-climax. It was a cost-effective and eminently sensible appointment, but not one to get the football-speaking world talking.

On a day when our rugby Sharks and cricketing Proteas had disappointed and Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates played out yet another goalless draw in front of 90,000 fans, there was a general air of low expectation about the whole thing.

Let’s get the positives down first: Mashaba was, by some margin, the cheapest option on SAFA’s table. That money can be pumped in to development rather than high-risk wages. His salary will probably amount to around a quarter of the R22m figure being bandied about for Carlos Queiroz, the only other name presented to the technical committee.

Mashaba is local, popular… and has done the job before. Three times. There should be no surprises when PSL clubs refuse to release players and foreign clubs jealously guard their Bafana youngsters. He should be able to deal with the agents, media and politicians who will involve themselves in his business.

Masahaba has a good track record during those spells in charge of Bafana (second only to Clive Barker) and a long association with success at junior levels including our last successful qualification for the Olympic games in 2000 and the Under 20 World Cup in 1997.

But all that was, in football terms, a lifetime ago. Though he won the COSAFA Under 20 tournament in Lesotho just last December, Mashaba wasn’t even in the running for the big job until SAFA realised he was the cut-price option barely a fortnight ago and, prompted by President Danny Jordaan, went public with his ambition.

Though it’s possible to see both England’s Roy Hodgson and Brazil’s recently expired Big Phil Scolari as similar to the Mashaba situation – local coach, spotted history, been suggested before – it would be unfair to judge Shakes just yet… Joachim Loew at Germany and Belgium’s Marc Wilmots show the other side of that equation.

Of course it’s easy to say SAFA are no great Shakes when we had big foreign names like Steve Keshi, Herve Renard, Patrick Kluivert, Carlos Queiroz and erm… David Moyes in the frame. I suspect a few of those big egos won't be happy to be over-looked for our beloved Shakes.

It worries me to read those stories from Mashaba’s last turbulent reign, when he was suspended and eventually fired for refusing to allow South Africa’ foreign contingent to arrive late for camp. Even now, Mark Fish – one of the players caught up in that particular storm - is not convinced. As he said on my show Soccerballz last Thursday: “Shakes would be a step backwards for South African football.”

Mashaba, now 63, will have to have a little more patience this time around with players like Ajax Amsterdam’s Thulani Serero and FC Rostov’s Siyanda Xulu, two key men in Bafana’s future when they try to balance the club v country equation.

I worry too that Mashaba has been working with kids for the past decade, apart from an unspectacular spell in charge at Swaziland in 2008. And that he does not have the technical or practical experience over the past decade to close the gap on the rest of Africa, let alone the world. The appointment of a Technical Director will be vital in making up that gap.

It's not just development that hampers South African football; training methods, match preparation, technological advances and modern dietary preparation have moved on apace too.

But for now, we can only take his word for it. Shakes himself, talking from the AmaJita U20 tour of West Africa, said: “My first duty would be to thank Mr Jordaan as well as the entire national executive for their gesture. Words fail me. I'm sure I won't be a disappointment.

“I will pull out all the stops to make sure that our people become part and parcel of our national team. The only way to do that is by bringing results.”

Ah. Results. The AFCON 2015 qualifiers start next month with Sudan and Nigeria. Generally a new boss gets a honeymoon period. But a pair of opening defeats could easily see the tide turn against South Africa’s new head coach. By November 19, AFCON qualifying will be done. Let’s hope Shakes isn’t.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in 

(including caretakers/interim appointments)

Stanley "Screamer" Tshabalala (1992)
Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba (1992)
Augusto Palacios (1993)
Clive "The Dog" Barker (1994–97)
Jomo Sono (1998)
Philippe Troussier (1998)
Trott Moloto (1998–00)
Carlos Queiroz (2000–02)
Ephraim "Shakes" Mashaba (2001)
Trott Moloto (2002)
Jomo Sono (2002)
Ephraim “Shakes” Mashaba (2002–03)
Jomo Sono (2003)
April Phumo (2004)
Stuart Baxter (2004–05)
Ted Dumitru (2005–06)
Pitso Mosimane (2006)
Carlos Alberto Parreira (2007–08)
Joel Santana (2008–09)
Carlos Alberto Parreira (2009–10)
Pitso Mosimane (2010–12)
Steve Komphela (2012)
Gordon Igesund (2012–2014)
Shakes Mashaba (2014-)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

On tour with the AmaJimbos: why South African football has a brighter future than you think

On song: Tanzania and South Africa line up for the
anthems on Friday at Azam FC near Dar Es Salaam
IT goes against the flow to say South Africa have bright footballing future. Ranked 66 in the world and 14 in Africa, nowhere near the World Cup in Brazil, poor on home soil at AFCON and CHAN.

Bloody hell, we haven’t even got a head coach at the moment with Gordon Igesund serving out the final days of what was, barring a 1-0 win over now-not-so-mighty Spain, a dreadfully disappointing two years.

But I bring good news. We DO have a future. I’ve just returned from Tanzania, where our Under 17 national squad, the AmaJimbos, produced a creditable 0-0 draw against the young Serengeti Warriors at Azam FC, just outside Dar Es Salaam.

It doesn’t sound much, but believe me, these young South Africans will win the home leg and go on to play Congo or Egypt for a place in the African Youth Championship hosted by Niger next year.

It wasn’t the result which got to me at Azam’s neat little set up on Friday afternoon. It was the attitude, the drive, the ambition of our youngsters – and their SAFA back-up team.

Tanzania did all they could to unsettle a South African team featuring many youngsters – like Vuyo Mantjie from Harmony Academy in the Free State – who had never even been on a flight out of the country before.

Making their point: the AmaJimbos in action on Friday
They put is in the Sapphire Hotel, the kind of African palace you’d struggle to give one star. Stuck in the middle of the city with the local Mosque right opposite, the noise was unrelenting, particularly during Ramadan with the pre-dawn call to eat.

Ah, eating. Blimey, the food was dreadful despite assistant coach Shawn Bishop’s attempt to regulate the menu. The sight of 17 lads looking aghast at the prison food every mealtime was pitiful, they piled their plates high with bread and picked their way through stew after stew.

Basic hotel rooms with a single lift which forced even the old guys like me to run up and down the stairs didn’t help. The television channels offered one grainy view of SuperSport which came and went, the rest was… well, local.

Yep, the kind of place your missus would punch you in the head for if you ended up there on holiday. When head coach Molefi Ntseki raised some of these issues – including the unbelievable hour-plus drive to the stadium for training – the local football federation and CAF observers simply shrugged.

Walking out of the hotel was not recommended – I did a bit of exploring, it’s a fascinating, sweltering city. But when goalkeeping coach Stavros Tsichlas took us out on the final night after the game, the truth was revealed. Dar Es Salaam is no African hell hole. Barely a mile away, towards the coast, the city turns in to a beautiful seaside resort with swimming pools, plush hotels… and decent television with broadband connections!

On the road: AmaJimbos on the bus
But did our youngsters flinch? Did their heads go down? Not a bit of it. From huge SuperSport United goalkeeper Mondli Mphoto to captain Nelson Maluleka, they drew together, singing on every bus trip, dancing their way through the warm-ups after the daily blue-light drive through the chaos of Dar’s gridlocked Chinese-inspired busses.

The game itself – watched by a crowd of nearly 5000 on a sweltering Friday afternoon – was all South Africa’s. Wits front-runner Luvuyo Mkatshana had a third-minute goal ruled out – wrongly – for offside (I haven’t seen the replays, but assistant coach Bishop has got the local television coverage) and Khanyiso Mayo, the striker from the Eastern Cape, saw chance after chance go begging on the rubber-based astroturf surface.

The now-traditional Bafana Bafana problem of goal-scoring came home to roost. Mpoto – with a range of distribution right up there with Itumeleng Khune – was barely tested as Sundowns’ Notha Ngcobo terrorised the Tanzania right back and Keanu Cupido – one of SIX starters from the SuperSport United academy – soaked up everything at the back.

Putting some PSL clubs to shame: the crowd at Azam FC
Afterwards, coach Ntseki consoled a side disappointed by a sweat-soaked but goalless effort: “Heads up, heads up… you’ve done your country proud. Don’t be down about this, we’ll win it at home.”

Afterwards, in the more salubrious surrounds of the Sea Cliff casino, Ntseki and Bishop talked about the problems of goal-scoring which plagues our game. Solutions – involving former Moroka Swallows striker Noel Cousins, now a striking coach at Sundowns – are being sought.

But the message to take from Tanzania is not a glum one. These 17 boys and their SAFA handlers sneered at adversity. They took on board a first taste of travelling north in Africa. And they didn’t break. They sang.

No I in team: the AjaJimbos
These lads are our future. There is abundant talent – the AmaJimbos suffered some withdrawals due to the Engen U17 tournament taking place back in South Africa on the same weekend – and few African nations can match the resources of a nation which takes its own water and sports drinks on such trips and fights so hard for their boys.

Look, Congo or Egypt will be tough. But wherever SAFA decide to play the second leg against Tanzania next week – from Dobsonville to coach Ntseki’s spiritual home in Botshabelo – that hurdle will be reached.

And these players will march on, with valuable lessons learned. Bafana Bafana has a future. It’s just a matter of believing in our youth.

Picking the AmaJimbos: Molefi Ntseki and Shawn Bishop
SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Thursday, 17 July 2014

South Africa's Under 17s in Tanzania: AmaJimbos singing their way through the delights of Dar Es Salaam

No1: Mondli Mpoto of SuperSport United Academy
Dar Es Salaam’s city centre is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Especially if you’re a 17-year-old playing for South Africa’s Under 17s, the AmaJimbos.

The 17-strong Bafana Bafana youth squad, in Tanzania to play the first leg of their African Youth Championship qualifier on the gleaming new astro-turf of mega-rich Azam Football Club, appear in good spirits at the Sapphire Hotel in the capital.

But that in itself is a minor miracle. Many of the players have NEVER flown in an airplane before. Vuyo Junior Mantjie, the midfielder from Harmony Academy in the Free State, confessed as we left Oliver Tambo International airport on Tuesday afternoon: “This is my first flight, can you help me with the safety belt please?”

Working hard: AmaJimbos training at Azam FC
Five hours later, after considerable debate involving US dollars and the local currency, we finally made it through passport control and the first experience of this bustling city involved grid-locked traffic and the loud hooting of Chinese-made mini-buses as the team-bus struggled to negotiate the packed streets of Dar es Salaam.

Our hotel is not perfect. Far from it. But it’s not far from the local mosque, where the Muezzin’s five-times-daily call to prayer wakes us up as dawn breaks at 4.53am every morning.

The food is not quite what you’d expect. Plenty of fish, lots of spices, no menu. You eat what you get. It’s hot and humid at all times. A major debate over hotel rooms and a lot of haggling over an agreed menu followed as players, officials and media attempted to access their mobile networks and the hotel’s painfully weak broadband.

The hotel proudly proclaims: “No drinking in the hotel. Unmarried couples cannot share rooms.” This is an Islamic country.

Outside, the streets are frantic. Like a South African kasi on speed. Everybody is carrying something. From wood and metal to truck wheels and food. Many wear English Premier League replica shirts, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are the most popular, though Manchester City are plainly growing as a team worth supporting in Africa.

Stuck in a tiny hotel with just one lift and mostly Arabic television (there is one, grainy SuperSport channel), the players were relieved to cross to the posh part of the city for a quick kickabout on Wednesday morning. It was brief, but relieved the frustrations of the team, led by coach Molefi Ntseki.

Gunner: Premier League shirts all over Dar es Salaam
Then came the trip to Azam FC. 3pm Wednesday afternoon. We spent 15 minutes at one traffic light as the Tanzanian traffic came to a standstill. Eventually two police vehicles turned up to escort our two mini-buses through the unbelievable roads along a 20km journey through endless markets, apparently run-down but thriving. Coffin shops next to coffee shops, mobile phone credit available in every second shack, the “dental tooth remover” next to the “hair cutting saloon”.

Every second road in Tanzania appears to have been forgotten by the god of tarmac. Some of the roads don’t have potholes,  they resemble natural ravines scarred by years of heavy rain and heavier trucks. But the traffic is nose to tail.

It took us nearly two hours to negotiate the route to the Azam Stadium, a purpose-built facility built by the local wheat-and-drink millionaire on land granted to him by the government.

And there it all changed. A footballing oasis. Brand new floodlights with the wrapping paper still on them. A state-of-the-art artificial surface, rubber rather than sand-based. No grass burns. No bobbling on the turf. The dressing rooms are like golf lockers, in dark wood with a visitor’s facility that looks like a boardroom. The tiny stadium boasts two large replay screens, a television tower and there’s a turf pitch being laid beyond the astro.

Out on the pitch, goalkeeper Mondli Mpoto from SuperSport United finds himself able to punt the ball deep in to the opposition half under goalkeeping coach Stavro Tsichlas’s guiding hand. Shaun Bishop, the assistant coach, has the outfield players singing and dancing through the warm-up.

As a training match ensues, Notha Ngcobo, the only representative from the Mamelodi Sundowns academy, scored from distance. Thendo Mukumela from Limpopo rattled the bar from fully 30 yards. Shots are flying in from everywhere. Tsichlas agrees: “It’s a good surface to shoot on.”

Today we will return to Azam, hopefully with a full blue-light brigade. The road is long but fascinating. These youngsters know they are in a foreign country, from dawn calls to prayer to sweating at night if the air conditioning fails and running up seven flights of stairs because the lift never comes.

But throughout, with the match now just over 24 hours away (they kick-off against Tanzania on tomorrow at 4pm local time, 3pm South African time) the players have been incredibly resilient. They sing in the bus, their training is joyous, fully of energy. They pray earnestly over their foreign meals.

And they’re ready for the locals, who must play the second leg in South Africa. If the AmaJimbos win this one, they’ve got the Democratic Republic of the Congo or mighty Egypt next.

Win that, and they qualify for the African Youth Championship in Niger next year. That’s the aim. Coach Ntseki insists: “We’re as ready as we can be. We won four friendlies against Botswana and Lesotho before this trip. Let’s do this thing.”

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Monday, 14 July 2014

BAFANA'S FUTURE IS HERE: flying off to Tanzania with the unbeaten Under 17 AmaJimbos

Shaping our future: AmaJimbos coach Molefi Ntseki
OVER the next five days, I hope to find out if South African football has a future. I’m pretty sure it has. And it’s brighter than we think.

I leave for Dar Es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, tomorrow afternoon with Bafana Bafana’s Under 17 squad…. the AMAJIMBOS.

On Friday, at 3pm South African time, the lads face Tanzania in the away leg of their 2015 African Youth Championship qualifier at the 7,000-capacity Azam Stadium.

Having just watch a fascinating World Cup in Brazil devoid of our senior men’s squad – Gordon Igesund’s qualifying failure has been well documented around these parts – there is a general feeling of pessimism in South African football with the PSL and SAFA apparently unable to produce competitive national teams as they bang their heads together.

But given their preparation for the Tanzania qualifier, the Under 17s appear ready to defy this hopelessness and I hope to be able to bring to my readers a taste of our future stars as I work with Dominic Chimhavi, the SAFA Head of Communications, and team manager Barney Kujane,

The AmaJimbos’ preparation has been impeccable thus far. First came two friendlies against Botswana – won 2-0 and 4-0 – followed by last week’s trip to Lesotho, where the youngsters chalked up 2-0 and 1-0 wins. That’s four wins, nine goals scored, NONE conceded. Not bad for a country with no footballing future.

Under 17 coach Molefi Ntseki says: “The preparatory tour was a big success for us. I believe all the traveling has really helped us to prepare thoroughly for Tanzania.

“I am confident that going to Dar Es Salaam we will keep the same spirit that prevailed over the last two weeks, as well as the mental strength. We have become one big happy family. 

"The AmaJimbos are starting to show understanding of what is expected of them and also the demands of the game at international level.”

The future right here: The AmaJimbos squad
The only new addition to the 18-man squad is Liam Jordan of Bidvest Wits who was unable to join the squad in Botswana and Lesotho. Jordan is the son of the late Bafana striker Keryn and has impressed Wits no-nonsense boss Gavin Hunt since he returned to South Africa from New Zealand, where his father ended his goal-laden career. Liam was named Player of the Tournament at the Under 17 South African Championship in April, where Wits beat Chiefs in the final.

Sanele Tshabalala, the young Kaizer Chiefs stopper, was voted best goalkeeper at that tournament in Soweto while Vuyo Mkatshana from Wits scored against Lesotho last weekend. Captain Nelson Maluleka from SuperSport scored three in two games on the tour of Botswana.

The full AmaJimbos squad features SIX players from SuperSport United’s academy and just one from PSL champions Mamelodi Sundowns and Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs:

GOALKEEPERS: Mondli MPOTO (SuperSport Academy); Sanele TSHABALALA (Kaizer Chiefs Academy).

DEFENDERS: Simon NQOI (SuperSport Academy); Samuel NKOMO (Gauteng Province);  Notha Nature NGCOBO (Mamelodi Sundowns Academy); Keanu Gregory CUPIDO (Diambars Academy); Thendo MUKUMELA (Limpopo Province); Katlego MOHAMME (SuperSport Academy); Tshepiso MAHLANGU (SuperSport Academy).

MIDFIELDERS: Athenkosi DLALA (SuperSport Academy); Sibongakonke Ntuthuko MBATHA (School of Excellence); Nelson MALULEKE (SuperSport Academy); Liam JORDAN (Bidvest Wits); Felix NOGE (Harmony Academy); Vuyo Junior MANTJIE (Harmony Academy).

STRIKERS: Luvuyo Katlego MKATSHANA (Bidvest Wits Academy); Khanyiso MAYO (Eastern Cape Province); Edwin SEKHWAMA (School of Excellence).

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Sunday, 13 July 2014

World Cup Final 2014: SUPER MARIO SEALS THE DEAL for Germany... and rightly so

Highlight of the night: the sun sets over Christ the Redeemer above Rio
Dreadful. Goalless. Disappointing. Poetic commentator Peter Drury can show us all the glorious sunsets in the world, but the World Cup Final simply let us down.

The long-awaited winner: Mario Gotze scores
In the end it was decided by a single moment of predatory finishing from Mario Gotze, the 22-year-old supersub from Bayern Munich.

And that was only right. After a fascinating tournament in Brazil filled with shocks and surprises, Argentina successfully sucked the life out of the Germans and left us bemoaning on the second 0-0 final in history, with the USA in 1994 the only previous example.

It’s harsh blaming all this on the Argies, but in truth, look at their record. Like Spain in South Africa four years ago, they managed to stay goalless throughout the knock-out stages, over seven hours of defensive buttressing.

But up front, despite an embarrassment of striking riches, two goals in four games. Ugh. Lionel Messi showed glimpses, but never enough to persuade anybody of my age he’s another Pele or Diego Maradona.

His highly-rated, over-priced strike partners Gonzalo Higuain – who missed one and had another ruled out (rightly) for off-side – and Kun Aguero were largely unimpressive too.

But then what can we say about the Germans? Top scorers in 2010. 17 in Brazil. The record-breaking 16-goal Miroslav Klose went off before the 90 minutes were up, Thomas Muller – their leading scorer for both tournaments – was painfully lacking.

In the end, it came down to extra-time. Germany had most of the possession in the first half but shut up shop in the second. Argentina did little to set the pulses racing. All commentator Drury, the football poet, could offer was nice pictures of Christ the Redeemer with the sun going down.

He said: “If you don’t find that view breathtaking, there’s something missing in your humanity.” There was. A goal. Three World Cup finals going to extra-time in a row? After a tournament where former winners Spain, Italy and England went home early?

No cause to celebrate: Higuain after his disallowed goal
Where Tim Krul came on as a penalty specialist? Where Cameroonians head-butted each other? Where two African sides reached the knock-out stages for the first time? Where Neymar broke a vertebra and Tim Howard saved more shots in one game than anygoalkeeper before? The old Suarez bite and ban and move to Barcelona?

Great stuff. It started with Holland 5, Spain 1 and, in truth, ended with that unbelievable semi-final: Germany 7, Brazil 1.

But always, lurking in the background, Alejandro Sabella, the man who played for Sheffield United and Leeds back in the 80s. Perhaps that’s where he learned the unbeautiful game. Under him, Messi is too often reduced to a midfield worker ant. Under him, when Lavezzi starts running at the opposition too much, off he goes. Under him, Argentina are little more than Stoke City on steroids.

In a tournament where a record NINE of the knock-out games went to extra-time, we were forced to endure another 30 minutes of stale-mate. Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli managed to keep all 22 players on the pitch, though Kramer was felled by a hefty Garay shoulder and Neuer nearly beheaded Higuain.

Extra-time gave us chances for subsitutes Schurrle and Palacio but no goal. Until SEVEN minutes from penalties, Bayern Munich's Mario Gotze produced a chest-and-volley finish to provide Germany with the edge they needed.

It was the first goal Argentina had conceded since the group stages. The first time EVER they had let in during World Cup extra-time. And the final kick of the match belonged to Lionel Messi, the man who threatened to eclipse the great Diego Maradona. He didn't. He ballooned his free-kick over the bar... and probably on the head of Christ the Redeemer.

Moment of triumph: Germany lift the World Cup
For the first time in history, a European nation has won the World Cup in South America. And who can say they didn't deserve it?

Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as best player of the tournament, but it was hardly deserved given his performances in the knock-out stages. Both Jerome Boateng and Bastian Schweinsteiger were magnificent throughout. James Rodriguez of Colombia takes home the golden boot while Manuel Neueur, the German giant, deservedly carried off the Golden Glove as keeper of the World Cup.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in

Thursday, 10 July 2014

THAT'S FINAL: Argentina and Germany head to Rio but there the similarity ends

No redemption: Brazil's defeat against German saw their
most famous landmarks head off for greener pastures
THERE will never be two more contrasting semi-finals than the matches which sent Germany and Argentina to Sunday's World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.

In keeping with this topsy-turvy tournament, the teutonic Germans stunned us all with a record 7-1 victory over the hosts before the Argies barged their way to a goalless victory over Holland and edged through on a penalty shoot-out.

Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte reduced Brazil to a sea of tears, after 29 minutes Joachim Loew's men had scored FIVE and a record 35.6m tweets helped record the world's utter surprise. Wednesday night in Sao Paulo reduced the entire football-speaking globe to tears; after 99 minutes Holland managed their first shot on target and a record billion yawns greeted their woeful exit.

There were those who claimed the first semi-final was an eight-goal mis-match. Not a contest. And there were those who felt the second was a fascinating battle of tactics.

That, of course, is utter rubbish. Tuesday night was a magnificent footballing occasion. Wednesday will have had the newly-converted Yanks switching off in their thousands.

And the truth is this: One extreme led to the other. Brazil and Big Phlop Scolari will NEVER recover from the ignominy of that record defeat, the chorus of boos, the almost apologetic non-celebration of the German sixth and seventh goals. The Selecao may point to the back fracture suffered by top-scorer Neymar and the suspension of captain Thiago Silva, but in truth they were a team of chronic bad backs and Fred, perhaps the weakest striker ever to wear the famous shirt.

Scolari sent them out unprepared; Silva's deputy Dante looked like he'd never met stand-in captain David Luiz and as the Germans fired at will,  Julio Cesar looked like a goalkeeper incapable of getting a game with Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers and the world fell apart: the Samba became the Sombre.

O Globo, the Rio sports newspaper, gave EVERY member of the team 0 out of 10 for their performance, Scolari admitted it was the worst night of his life and Luiz was one of many of the Selecao reduced to simply apologizing to a nation threatening to boil over in anger. And of course, we had a few nice pictures of Neymar, presumably happy not to be there, in a recent 7-Up lemonade advertisement.

Utter devastation. There's no coming back from 7-1. That's just unthinkable. Losing is one thing. Getting obliterated is another.

So the next night, having seen a nation self-destruct in 90 minutes of mayhem, both Argentina and the Netherlands knew exactly what NOT to do. Attack. Both sides set up to avoid defeat at all costs. Perhaps wary of what the Germans might do to them on Sunday, they almost seemed to invite the opposition to score first.

The Dutch, who neither scored nor conceded a goal in the last four hours of their World Cup saga, were simply appalling. Arjen Robben produced little of note, Robin van Persie played despite stomach problems and it showed. He was KAK. Set plays came straight out of pub football, passing movements broke down like Putco buses and oranges played like lemons.

Argentina were little better, reducing the great Lionel Messi to a deep role that saw him trouble the penalty area just ONCE in the second half, let alone the goal of Jasper Cillessen.

And how apt that Cillessen, spectacularly replaced by Newcastle's nondescript goalkeeper Tim Krul in the memorable penalty shoot-out win over Costa Rica, failed to save a penalty in the shoot-out as Argentina roared home after failures from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder for the Dutch.

Sergio Romero, the workmanlike Argentine stopper, will get the credit for those two saves and rightly so. But with eight goals in six games, the much-vaunted striking combinations have simply failed to impress. Kun Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain have been little better than Fred and Hulk.

So we go in to Sunday's showdown with Germany the clear favorites given their incredible semi-final triumph. And this despite the fact a European nation has NEVER won the World Cup in Latin America.

Argentina may spring a surprise. But remember the Italia 1990 final? Then, too, a below-par Argentina somehow clawed their way to Rome and succumbed 1-0 to the Germans. It was one of the worst games of football you could hope to witness, with referee shoving rather than goals apparently the priority for Maradona's men.

But they could yet turn this around. If Messi is freed to work his magic, if the little flea finally gets the chance to prove he CAN thrive in the biggest game of all, this World Cup could yet get the finish it deserves.

The magic against the machine. Let it be so, Mr Sabella. For football's sake.

SOCCERBALLZ! my innovative football show on with Mark Fish airs every Thursday from 9am-11am. See Ballz' channel for our growing library of fascinating football interviews with the big names. Ballz will also provide daily World Cup updates from next week.

You can also follow me on for all the latest sports news and read my “Neal and Pray” column every Tuesday in