Why are young players struggling to find their feet in SA’s top football league?

In the last five seasons, more than half of the new entrants in South Africa’s top-flight football league have been young players. However, the league’s age has not been getting younger during this period.

By mamaili.mamaila
Monday, March 7, 2022

Photo: Baroka Football Club

Football development in South Africa needs a boost as the prioritisation of youngsters in South Africa’s premiership division (also known as the DStv Premiership) leaves a lot to be desired.

Between the 2017/18 and 2021/22 seasons, of the 515 players who debuted in the league, 276 (54%) were under the age of 23, and can be considered “young players” by the Premier Soccer League’s (PSL’s) standards

Half of the players in the DStv Premiership teams during the same period were older than 27.

A lesson from foreign quotas

During the past five seasons, 143 (28%) of the debutants were foreign players, the rest were South Africans.  In the current season, 94 (16%) of the 571 players registered for the DStv Premiership are foreign players.

PSL member clubs are allowed to register a maximum of five non-South African players at a time, with the exception only being when non-South African players have obtained permanent residency.

These stringent conditions promote the prioritisation of local players. Adopting a similar approach with age could inject some youth into the league’s teams. 

Impact of the league’s stagnant age

If competent young footballers do not get a reasonable opportunity to play at the highest level, they will not get a chance to represent the national football team, Bafana Bafana, early in their careers, resulting in an “older”, yet inexperienced squad, with no real prospects on the international stage.

In France, for example, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé scored in the 2018 Fifa World Cup final, leading France to its second ever World Cup triumph. 

Mbappé, who is now 23 years old and still a key player at national and club level for Paris Saint Germain, would likely be considered too young to make a meaningful contribution in South Africa’s top-flight football.

Afcon-winning coach Hugo Broos set tongues wagging last year when, upon taking over as the manager of Bafana Bafana, he stated that he would be pumping new blood into the national team by basing the core of the squad on selecting young players, preferring to cap the squad’s age at 30. 

As most of the teams in the DStv Premiership prefer experienced players, Broos noted that this made his selections difficult, with clubs reportedly refusing to engage him on his vision for the future of the country’s football. 

The youngest squad this season is Limpopo-based Baroka Football Club’s (Baroka). Baroka’s average and median ages in 2021/22 are both 25-years old.

The team has debuted nine players, four of them from its development structures and the rest either from the development structures of other clubs or the GladAfrica Championship. 

Although the team is at the bottom of the log and faces relegation as things stand, Baroka CEO Richard Mashabane said that the club believes in its youthful squad. 

In the past two seasons, the ‘young player of the season’ at the annual PSL Awards was won by Baroka players: Goodman Mosele in 2019/20 (who now plays for Orlando Pirates) and Evidence Makgopa in 2020/21.

Further, Baroka debuted 59 players between 2017/18 and 2021/22 – the most of any DStv Premiership club – with the average age of 23 years old.

South Africa’s “big three” teams: Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns have fallen short in this regard, each debuting fewer than 30 players since the 2017/18 season. 

All three teams currently have an average squad age of above 27-years old. Kaizer Chiefs’ current median is 29, Orlando Pirates’ current median age is 28, and Mamelodi Sundowns’ current median age is 27. 

Prioritise young players

Young players have shown great potential within Baroka’s structures over the years, Mashabane said.

For example, when the team was promoted to the DSTV Premiership after winning the GladAfrica championship at the end of the 2015/16 season, the squad included teenagers such as Victor Letsoalo, Gift Motupa and Lantshene Phalane, who are still active in the league.

Players such as Letsoalo, Goodman Mosele, Veli Mothwa and Evidence Makgopa – who debuted as youngsters at Baroka and have recently been called up for national team duty since Broos’ arrival, are proof that giving young players game time can positively impact local football, he said. 

Having good development structures is crucial, although most teams in South Africa might struggle financially in that regard, Mashabane told The Outlier

“There is a need for more sponsorship to improve football development in South Africa because the talent is there. We do not want to be the only club that is known for giving youngsters their big break and I believe more teams could do this if they had the resources.” 

Late developers

While European teams are praised for introducing young players into their senior teams earlier, it remains a point of contention for South African clubs. 

Youth football development specialist and the University of Johannesburg’s head football coach Karabo Mogudi said that developing local youngsters takes a long time compared with anywhere else in the world.

Therefore, they make a name for themselves much later than their international counterparts, which limits their career prospects.  

“At grassroots level, young footballers within communities are not able to play enough football because of a lack of facilities, which are often hoarded by older players. 

“They only get into organised sports at around 12 years old, which is later than in other nations.” 

Instead of being fully developed at 18 years old, this usually happens for the average South African player at about 25 years old, said Mogudi. 

This complicates coaches’ plans for youngster selections as they do not want to risk losing matches, which could lead to them being fired – a regular occurrence in the PSL.

Moreover, club interference is also a factor, as club owners are largely concerned with protecting their investment. 

“Perhaps if the league were to respond to calls to increase the number of its member clubs from 16, to 18 or 20 teams, it may alleviate that pressure, where coaches would be more open to taking a chance on younger players more frequently,” said Mogudi.

Young players at the top six clubs

The DStv Diski Challenge (DDC), which is the DStv Premiership’s reserve league, was launched in 2014 with the aim of improving developmental football. Not many of its graduates have made an impact in South Africa’s top teams. 

As of 2020, the reserve league introduced an age cap of 21 years, however,  teams are allowed three players not older than 23 years.

Although the big teams in the DStv Premiership prefer to secure the best talent money can buy, or attract players using their club’s prestige, there are some young players who debuted at the league’s top six most valued clubs over the last five seasons, who came through their DDC teams.

Seven of Kaizer Chiefs’ 11 DDC graduates have been retained in the league – the most of any of the top six clubs.

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There was a glimmer of hope between 2017/18 and 2020/21, when the team debuted six players from its DDC squad.

Only one player, attacking midfielder Sphelele Mkhulise, who debuted in 2018/19, still plays for the team regularly.

Left winger Promise Mkhuma, who debuted in 2019/20 is Mamelodi Sundowns’ youngest player at 21, but he has yet to play in a match this season. The club’s second youngest player is 25.

The other three of those six players have been transferred to clubs in the bottom half of the DStv Premiership log, while the remaining one plays in the GladAfrica Championship.

The club has reportedly added talent development manager Flemming Berg to its technical team to address the squad’s age issue.

Youth mandates

The PSL has not given its member clubs any mandate to retain players from its development academies or its reserve leagues, unlike football leagues elsewhere in the world.

For example, since the 2008/09 season, each club in Germany’s Bundesliga must employ at least eight players who have come through German academies. Of these eight local players, at least four must have come through a club’s own academy. 

Mogudi said that although such mandates may be challenging for local clubs, the league should look into incentivising clubs that have a high number of young players in their books, especially those that include such players in their match-day squads. 

“The challenge would be their holistic readiness for top-flight football. Most development structures lack an optimisation stage which should prepare youngsters for that next phase,” he said.

Without the proper nutritional, mental and medical support, youngsters coming through from development structures are unlikely to survive in top-flight football, said Mogudi. 

Most of the local clubs do not have these support facilities in place, but they are available at university level.

“If you look at our Olympians and more especially the medalists such as Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk and Tatjana Schoenmaker, these are products of universities, who have benefitted from the facilities and structures available at universities during their development,” said Mogudi.

It may be beneficial if clubs could look towards collaborating with institutions in this regard, he said.

Although talent identification is not a problem in South Africa, younger coaches in development structures need to create platforms to share ideas as this contributes to the bigger picture and enables them to learn better ways of developing players, said Mogudi. 

 “It is pointless if coaches in development structures do not share this knowledge among each other so it can be adopted and tweaked according to the characteristics and knowledge systems of local football, to produce adequate modern footballers at an earlier stage.”

The 2021/22 DStv Premiership season is still ongoing. The information in this article was compiled using the data available at the time of writing.