African players abroad Tau makes wrong pacy return to Africa football

Percy Tau, a spiky-haired South African footballer endowed with immense speed and talent, recently made a wrong move back to Egypt, perhaps lured by the fresh air of the Nile River and thrills of pyramids.

Instead of enduring the rough and tumble of the Premier League in England, he has signed for Al Ahly in Egypt from Brighton and Hove Albion.

Unfortunately, if what Citizen newspaper of South Africa published on Tuesday last week is anything to go by, the 27-year-old sees nothing wrong with such a retrogressive move.

With most of these decisions I consider myself and how I feel. I know I always have the support of South Africa, and South Africa is a footballing nation,” Tau is quoted saying.

“What is the point of me sitting on the bench when I am not playing? I want to see myself playing and my family wants [me] to play. People will always have opinions, this is a big country.”

From the above remarks, it is clear Tau might be thinking about himself and his career only.

However, he ought to know that his latest move could be a roadblock standing in the way of many up-and-coming South African players who dream of playing at the top level in England.

After the Bafana Bafana star’s exit from Brighton, it is difficult imagining another Premier League club getting interested in talent from South Africa soon.

For starters, Tau was, until last month, the only South African gracing the Premier League.

Before Tau’s move from South Africa league champions Mamelodi Sundowns to Brighton in 2018, it had taken three years after Steven Piennar’s exit from Everton for a South African to sign for a top-flight English team.

In any case, Tau’s move to Brighton did not come on a silver platter in 2018. He failed to meet Work Permit pre-conditions; hence he was loaned out to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium.

In Belgium, he had successful spells with Gilloise, Club Brugge and RSC Anderlecht before Brighton recalled him towards the end of last season.

Three years later, just when he seemed ready to fight for his place at Brighton, Tau took a flight to Egypt where game-time is guaranteed under Pitso Mosimane, his former mentor at Sundowns.

Just when fans thought he would spend his full season in the Premier League,  Tau fled Brighton, ending three years of less than five appearances and a goal for the Seagulls.

Brighton are, in the context of the Premier League, a modest team compared to the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City.

Therefore, Graham Potter’s team was a perfect learning platform for Tau, who in the context of world footballers, is equally a modest talent.

Of course, you cannot speak loudly in the streets of Johannesburg that Tau is an average footballer. South Africans rate him so highly to a fault as their answer to the question of Lionel Messi’s South Africa equivalent.

Tau’s departure from England means that South Africa, the undisputed Africa football commercial capital does not have representation in the Premier League, let alone in Europe’s big leagues.

Make no mistake about his move, Tau has joined the biggest and best club in Africa.

Al Ahly are not your everyday African club. They compete pound-for-pound with some clubs in the backwater of European football in terms of infrastructure and remuneration.

But as far as football standards are concerned, Europe is Europe.

Many better footballers from North and West Africa would rather suffer and kick their heels on the bench for top teams instead of returning to Africa.

Tau is good enough to play in Belgium where he had successful loan spells.

So why did Tau leave when it was clear that Brighton was preparing him for the big stage?

After all, Tanzanian Mbwana Samatta was in similar shoes at Aston Villa but he opted to sign for Fenerbahçe in Turkey instead of returning to Africa.

Tau should be the first person to know that merely training with a Premier League club or even the reserves adds value to a career that involves playing week-in and week-out without being pushed out of the comfort zone.

Therefore, Tau’s decision to abandon Europe sends wrong signals about the ambition and mental strength of African footballers, especially those from the lower half of the continent.

So far, Southern Africa has two players—Patson Daka at Leicester City and Enock Mwepu at Brighton—in the Premier League. It is quite a small number compared to the many players that represent North and West Africa in Europe.

Teams that have exported more players to top teams in Europe perform better in continental and world competitions.

It is not surprising that Bafana Bafana could not even make the cut for the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations finals. Such a trend might continue in the World Cup qualifying race for Africa.

That South Africa is not represented in the Premier League in England is no laughing matter.

Africa football looks up to South Africa as the big brother in terms of setting standards and off the pitch—television, infrastructure and commercialisation—they lead the way, but on it the story is different.

Now, if the 2010 World Cup hosts can’t have representation in top leagues of the world, then something is fundamentally wrong.

Afterall, for all their economic struggles, Zimbabwe have Marvelous Nakamba playing for Aston Villa, Mwepu and Daka are flying Zambia’s flag in the Premier League, what is wrong with South African footballers?

That DStv Premiership clubs pay players better is just an excuse.

If it is a question of money then why did Daka and Mwepu hang on in Austria where the perks could be at par with those of the DStv Premiership until they made it into the ultimate Hollywood of world football, the Premier League?

That South African players lack motivation to play abroad because they earn enough at home is a lazy theory that hardly explains the whole story.

The issue could be lack of ambition, proper development structures and low performance standards that render playing professional football easy in South Africa.

The news of Tau signing for Al Ahly came merely weeks after midfielder Keegan Dolly left Montpellier in French Ligue 1 and signed for Kaizer Chiefs; a move that is baffling to say the least.

Former Chiefs attacker Junior Khanye also questioned Tau’s

decision to sign for the CAF Champions League holders, saying: “Percy Tau was supposed to stay there in Europe.”

Staying in England did not mean Brighton manager Graham Potter guaranteeing Tau regular action. It meant Tau had to fight for his place until he became a regular.

Maybe, as Benni McCarthy observed last week, fighting for opportunities is not something South African footballers are used to.

And him making that decision, which I know is probably just people’s opinion and the way they think in a negative way, has just made it kind of clear that this is what South African players are like, that they don’t have strong willpower, they don’t have a strong mentality, that when the going gets tough, they would rather take themselves out of the equation.

As good as Al Ahly is, they are still in Africa. They are not in the European continent, they don’t play against the best players in the world, they don’t play week in and week out against the Liverpool’s, Chelsea’s, Man United’s, the Tottenham Hotspur’s,” the ex-Porto FC striker told South African Football Journalists Association.

McCarthy was in similar shoes to Tau, leaving Africa after conquering the 1998 AFCON finals in Burkina Faso where he shared the Golden Boot Award with Egyptian Hassam Hossam.

Once McCarthy set foot in Europe, he realized that all his big reputation carved in South Africa counted for nothing. He had to start from scratch, proving himself in Europe.

McCarthy moved from Celta Vigo in Spain to Porto in Portugal back and forth until his goals won Jose Mournino the Uefa Champions League in 2003. The rest is history.

Indeed, why should modern day South African footballers not aim to better the standards which McCarthy, Lucas Radebe, Phil Masinga (Leeds United) and Quintone Fortune (Manchester United), set in England?

Tau has emulated the bad examples of South African footballers such as Tokelo Rantie and Mbulelo Mabizela who left the Premier League prematurely after failing to break through.

Of course, the biggest losers are Bafana Bafana.

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