12 February 2015

THE CULTURE OF FOOTBALL: BALANCING CLUB AND COUNTRY

Daniel Gallan

Pitso Mosimane is one of South Africa’s longest serving and most decorated managers. He has managed some of the top clubs in the country and was appointed head coach of the national side after the 2010 World Cup. He sat down with CONQA Sport to discuss the cultural nuances that come with managing a club versus managing a nation.

Pitso Mosimane as Bafana Bafana coach 2012. Pitso's philosophy on coaching is entrenched in youth and the future as well as helping those he cares about achieve achieve a better life for themselves and their families through sport. Image from www.pitsomosimane.co.za

Pitso Mosimane as Bafana Bafana coach 2012. Pitso's philosophy on coaching is entrenched in youth and the future as well as helping those he cares about achieve achieve a better life for themselves and their families through sport. Image from www.pitsomosimane.co.za

It’s a tricky task treading the fine line that separates humility and confidence when you’re a football manager. Veer too much on one side and you get labelled as arrogant and heap pressure on yourself to deliver. Fail to do so and you get crucified by the fans and media. Stray too far the other way however and you’re labelled as small time; a deer in the headlights who is just happy to be sitting in the hot seat long enough to feel its warmth. Being a football manager is a balancing act.

“I’m not a genius,” says Pitso Mosimane, without any inkling of false modesty. “The geniuses are Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho. These are the guys showing me how to do my job. Unless you are a genius you can always learn from others.”

Mosimane is currently head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns, the reigning Premier Soccer League (PSL) champions. He is also the only man to play for and coach Bafana Bafana, the national football team of South Africa. He has experienced what it is like at the top for both club and country, a relationship that still seems to be fraught with complications.

“The biggest challenge in Africa, and especially South Africa, is the club versus country debate. A balance always has to be found between the pay master and patriotism. It comes down to how important your country is for you as an individual.”

A club coach spends almost every day with his players. He understands their personalities and has the luxury of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. He can adjust his personnel positions, work on different tactics and try and fit individuals into a system that gets the best out of them. A national coach, especially one in Africa, does not have these luxuries and must therefore implement different strategies in order to create a winning formula.

“For official games as Bafana coach, you get only a few days to prepare your team. For friendlies you get maybe one and a half days. How can you implement tactics and experiment? There’s no way. I once had a player from Rubin Kazan. He left Russia on the Wednesday, flew to Frankfurt, then to London, then to Johannesburg. He arrived Friday afternoon with the game the next day. Travel is something European national coaches do not struggle with as much as we do here.” This is not an overstatement. For a future CAF Champions League match in Cameroon, Sundowns will have to fly to Germany, then to Cameroon, back to Germany and then back to South Africa.

With this in mind, Mosimane begins to paint a picture of how a club manager and national coach have to use different approaches in order to become successful. A club manager has enough time to become a master tactician. The geniuses that Mosimane mentions above can mould their players, adjust the shape of their teams, and completely overhaul previous philosophies if results on the field are not going the way they should be. A national coach needs to adopt a more ideological approach as, barring a major tournament, he only has a few days with his players.

“When I was Bafana coach I would put our national flag in the dressing room and make the players look at it,” says Mosimane. “I would tell them that they are playing for their family, for their country, for their flag, for 50 million people. I’d tell them that they have been chosen to play in that position as the best person who can help their country. No one else on that day can do what they can do.”

Thulani Serero in action for Ajax Amsterdam. Mosimane's work with Serero has seen the youngster become one of South Africa's best exports. Action Images / Andrew Couldridge  

This shifting of philosophy is an important factor to understand when a coach is in charge of a club or a national side. Patriotism, nationalism, the desire to play for your country; these are the tactics the national coach must employ. For every positional shift or formation change that rattles around Mosimane’s head as manager of Sundowns, he had a resounding speech or morale boosting gesture for Bafana.

Patriotism is an easy tool to use with a national side as, generally, all the players under the coach’s care come from the same country. For a club manager, getting a group of people who might have absolutely no affiliation with the region they are playing for, working on the same page, can be tricky. Mosimane insists though that a club manager still needs to impart his ideologies on the players that play for him.

“Unlike the national side where the players play for their country, in a club team the players play for their job, but they also play for their coach. You need to get them to buy your vision. Sometimes you have to manage a foreign player and help him adjust. But the manager of a club team gets to handpick who plays for him and he is chosen on his football ability, not whether or not he adjusts or if he loves where he plays.”

Club football is more professionalised. Club players and managers, despite the emotions that come with football, are there to do a job and as such have no obligation other than winning that football match. This can lead to players playing different roles for club and country. Take Oupa Manyisa as an example. The Orlando Pirates man is a central figure for his club, dictating play from the middle of the park, yet he found himself in wide positions for Bafana at the African Cup of Nations. Surely they can’t both be the right position for him, and if that is the case, why isn’t there dialogue between the clubs and the national coach?

“As the national coach, you can tell the clubs what you think is right, but they don’t have to listen to you,” Mosimane would know, he has been on both sides of the managerial debate. “The club coach needs to win games. It’s his head on the block. If he doesn’t do well with what the national coach is doing, he is going to get sacked.”

Mosimane cites the Netherlands as an example of how a unified system throughout the clubs can impact the national team. He states that the majority of clubs use the same formation and implement similar tactics and as such, the identity of the national side is one that the players are familiar with.

“When the football association has a unified philosophy on the way the team should play, and when 80% of the clubs play that way, I think we will be moving forward and it would be better across the board.”

This unified philosophy would also help with youth development. When the coach of Bafana needs to fill a position, he might not have the exact fit he is looking for. A striker is needed, but one that suits the style of play of the national side. What if none of the clubs play that way? The strikers from the clubs might suit one style of play and not another. Lionel Messi will never be a long ball target man and would never be as prolific in a team that plays that way.

“At a club, you develop and improve young players through the academies and the feeder systems of the clubs,” Mosimane explains. “In the national team you only get to choose what is available. If the youth structures are not of the highest quality, we won’t have the player we need.”

We previously spoke to Ulf Schott from the DFB about youth development. Mosimane references the work of the current world champions as something to try and emulate. Unfortunately, as Mosimane admits, South Africa do not have the financial resources to match the European giants and that makes life difficult when it comes to developing players.

“We need to increase the talent pool in this country, but that’s not going to happen by itself. u15, u16, u17 coaches in this country; they are not financially supported enough so they rather go to their 9-5. We need to support our coaches and encourage former players back in to the system so we can develop our young players. Our league is the best in Africa in terms of how it’s run and the infrastructure, but if infrastructure and a well-run league was all that mattered, the USA would have won the World Cup by now.”

Mosimane is insistent that we are on the right path in terms of youth development in this country and is not reluctant to state his part in this. Shake Mashaba’s team, despite being humbled at AFCON, showed promise, with young and exciting talents emerging. Mosimane states that he wants to be remembered as a coach who made coaches. This is clearly a man who believes in the culture and ethos of South African football. He references Steven Pienaar and Thulani Serero and his hand in helping them reach the heights they have. The fact that he is one of the most successful managers in recent PSL history is not once brought up. Instead he focuses on the future and how Bafana Bafana will be here long after he has gone. As he says, “knowing that I have made a difference in someone’s life is what it means to be a good coach. I know that to stay in that position I have to win trophies, but it is the human element that makes me a successful coach.”

Before he leaves for Sundowns duty I ask him if he would ever want to be the head coach of South Africa again. He doesn’t miss a beat; “We have a saying; ‘Once a Bafana, always a Bafana’”. Mosimane may not be a genius like the European legends he admires and studies, but you’d be hard pressed to find a coach who understands the cultural side of the game as much as the Kagiso native. 

Pitso Mosimane will be speaking at our Elite Sports Summit in September in Cape Town. He will be giving a talk on Building Culture: Creating a Winning Formula where he will discuss how through a human approach to coaching, he manages to get the best out of his players in a country where culture is entwined with sport. 

Pitso also assists his community and is involved in many charitable organisations and foundations. Go to his website for more information

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