The 2010 World Cup is remembered for all the wrong reasons. Yelping vuvuzelas, squalid football and the infamous Jabulani mean the tournament’s sporting legacy lies on shaky ground. When Andrés Iniesta brought the football to a merciful end, commentators were only too happy to shift their focus away from the average displays on the pitch. What impact, they mused, would the World Cup have on a country still healing its notorious divisions? More specifically, would it encourage participation in a sport that had always struggled for the limelight alongside rugby and cricket?
The Centlivres Building, nestled in a leafy avenue on the University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, seems a strange place to answer that question. But it was here that a group of young female architecture students, caught up in the football fever sweeping the country back in 2010, decided to form their very own five-a-side team. The girls had grown bored of watching their male colleagues play every week, and having convinced one of them to be their coach, formed what would eventually become known as Remarkables FC.
News of the new club spread quickly throughout campus. Membership swelled, and while some of the new recruits had played sports before, most hadn’t kicked a ball in anger before Sepp Blatter’s travelling circus arrived in town.
It’s easy to understand why. Until recently, football hadn’t been part of the school curriculum in South Africa, meaning it struggled for attention amidst more established sports like hockey. The absence of any notable infrastructure hasn’t helped either – despite the first ever documented game of women’s football occurring in the country in 1960, it’s taken over half a century for the South African Football Association to pay any heed.
In 2009, the amateur SASOL league was created to provide a meaningful platform for women’s football in the country. Some 144 teams from the country’s nine provinces compete, with nearly 3,000 players lining out, but it would be another eight years before the South African FA heaved itself from its laurels. “After a workshop in Durban, we reached a decision that we must form a national league for women’s football because when Banyana [the national team] plays, the players are selected from the SASOL squad, which is the provincial squad,” announced SAFA president Danny Jordaan in June 2017.
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It came too late for talents like Janine van Wyk, however. Despite earning more caps for her country than any male or female in its history with 134, the former Palace Super Falcons defender had to leave for Houston Dash last year in order to make the most of her prodigious ability. Even then, the move only came about after Van Wyk had formed and played for her own SASOL team, JVW FC.
Back in 2010, though, the women of Remarkables FC just wanted to play football. As well as joining the local futsal league in Cape Town, they began hosting matches and invitational tournaments at the Hellas Sea Point pitches, with Green Point Stadium and Table Mountain offering stunning vistas in the background. Teams from across the city took part, spreading the word even further about the new club. Eventually, players from Cape Town’s 11-a-side amateur league joined in, the small-sized pitches and all-weather facilities helping hone their technical skills. With girls as young as 17 and as old as 37 taking part, it quickly became clear that this was more than a football club.
Remarkables started making an impact off the pitch, too, with the arrival of current coach Taz Raza in 2012 sparking a real shift in their focus. A coder working with statistics behemoth Prozone, Raza moved to South Africa from the UK in 1999. When he joined, he realised that his background in data capture could give the club a real advantage in the South African women’s game. Thus, the Remarkables Football Community was born.
The club would still exist in its previous guise, but Raza’s drive and expertise would transform a local five-a-side team into a thriving collective based on analysis and data. Raza had taken some introductory coaching courses with the South African FA, but his fascination had always been how analysis can be applied to more traditional methods of coaching and development. By learning how coaches planned and organised their training sessions Raza was able to develop coding programs that continue to be used by coaches in South Africa even to this day.
But it wasn’t just the coaches who benefitted. Raza also realised that the players themselves could benefit from statistical analysis, and so began creating reports on their performances during games. “I wanted to experiment with video and feedback and see how we could take a group of girls that hadn’t played from a young age,” he says. “How could we get them to improve in a short period of time, how could we help them along?”
At first, the data was collected via simple means. GoPro cameras were attached at different ends of the courts, and the 40-minute matches were recorded remotely in full. Videos would be provided after the game, alongside general feedback on how the players had fared.
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Encouraged by the positive response, Raza decided to provide more intricate analysis. First, the goals were logged and sent to the scorers, before being shared on the Remarkables social media pages. If the aim was to promote the organisation, it worked – while a handful of teams may have participated in the first Remarkables FC league, that number had reached a dozen by the most recent event in late 2016. Every game was recorded and analysed, every byte of useful information delivered to the players to help improve their game.
Things became even more detailed. Raza would scour through footage of games, analysing the teams and players before sending detailed reports to the protagonists. ‘Negative’ and ‘positive’ actions were logged and issued to coaches and parents alike, providing detailed breakdowns of how player performance could be improved. “I started coding basic events, things like positive and negative actions, and linking them to particular players. If a player controlled in a way that meant they were losing position, I would code that in the video and show them that, really focussing on individual players and giving them feedback.” In one case, a parent used the footage to aid her daughter’s application for a scholarship to a college in the United States.
The commitment to fine-grain analysis has seen Remarkables expand its reach beyond youth football. Raza’s team finds itself working with a clutch of senior football players in the SASOL league, providing private analysis for their clients. Desiree Ellis, the current coach of the women’s national football team, is a known admirer of their work. The benefits haven’t just been technical, though. “Leaving the data out of it and just providing the video offered another perspective on their actions, it was something they’d never seen before,” Raza admits. “The girls learned how to receive different types of feedback. Now they want to see the bad clips before the good ones. They want to see how they can improve.”
The reports, all of which are available for free to scouts and coaches on the Remarkables website, offer an impressive level of detail. A player’s defensive and attacking statistics are summarised and appended alongside videos of their recent performances. Figures are provided on pass completion rate, tackle success, even how many duels the player has successfully won. It’s a level of analysis more commonly seen amongst professional leagues in Europe. That it is available for an amateur league in Cape Town is indeed remarkable.
Remarkables has even started engaging with local schools in Cape Town, encouraging girls to become more involved in the sport. “The hope is that the groundwork put in now will eventually feed back into a stronger women’s league and national team in South Africa,” Raza notes. Indeed, a clutch of schools will be competing in the Remarkables’ pilot five-a-side tournament in January 2018. All of the games will be filmed and coded throughout the 12-week showpiece, with bespoke analysis providing comprehensive feedback on all of the players.
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Raza’s team will also be running a series of educational projects concurrent with the league, teaching players, clubs and even parents on how to film and code games themselves. Tutorials will be provided on analysis software, offering opportunities for development and upskilling that extend beyond the white lines.
Despite the success of Remarkables FC, it would be wrong to say that women’s football in South Africa is on a level anywhere near that enjoyed in Europe or North America. The Women’s European Championships, for example, wasn’t televised by the nation’s major broadcaster, and the picture is even bleaker for the domestic game. “It’s a process that needs to grow and attract media and sponsorships to promote the value of the game,” Raza suggests. He and Remarkables FC are, however, at the forefront of the charge to do just that.
Perceptions, he thinks, are changing. “Every year more and more are getting involved, whether in coaching or developing a soccer school, helping girls get involved from a young age, collecting skills and knowledge towards that collective goal.”
When asked what the end goal is, Raza responds with characteristic enthusiasm. “We’d like to be the go-to platform for female players in South Africa, offering a completely objective service. Clubs, scouts and universities will be able to visit our website, look at our players and get independent data on their quality. If you want to be a success in the South African game, you’ll want to be a member of the Remarkables Football Community.”
It’s a message that’s being increasingly heard, with Raza and his teams in Cape Town and Johannesburg working round the clock coding reports and logging games. Their success has been such that they’ve had to turn clients away, with Raza keen to ensure that the service they provide is tailored as much as possible. The future seems bright.
What of the original members, the clutch of architecture students who took the original leap back in 2010? Life has intervened for most – jobs, marriages, families, the grinding obligations of daily life. Three of them, however, still turn up every week for their futsal fix. All of them, though, must surely look back and marvel at what they helped create. Seven years after they got together for their first kick-about, women’s football in South Africa continues to reap the benefits of their enterprise – who knows where it will be in another seven.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45