Head coach of the South African U19 Thabo Senong says there were many lessons learnt from the recently ended Durban U19 International Football Tournament.

This was the second edition of the tournament, which was won by Santos of Brazil in 2014.

Senong and his squad finished third in the 2015 event, ahead of Germany’s VFB Stuttgart. Arsenal of London won the tournament after defeating Dutch side PSV Eindhoven 2-1 in the final.

Other teams that took part were the Kwazulu-Natal Academy squad, Galatasary (Turkey), AC Milan (Italy) and Celtic (Scotland).

Hoy Park Management, the Kwazulu-Natal Provincial Government and the eThekwini Municipality, in partnership with the South African Football Association (SAFA), hosted the tournament.

SAFA Media sat down with Senong a few days after the event to get his thoughts.

Matlhomola Morake:    What was the experience like for you as a coach?

Thabo Senong:  It was a good experience for me as coach of the South African U19 side playing against teams of high standards, with players that have the technical quality and were very organised tactically from top European academies.

I was very impressed with the standard of the football and it was a fruitful experience for me, I have learnt a lot and I am hoping our players too have taken something out of this whole experience.

MM:      As head of the SA U20 National Team, how will the tournament help you?

TS:          This is a rebuilding phase for our U20 National Team. We are building a new team that will play in the African Youth Championship qualifiers next year in April, and for me this was the best platform to prepare the team and build a base. We are very happy that these boys have responded very well to the challenge.

These are the boys who were identified in the SAFA Interprovincial Tournament held in Bloemfontein last year, and hopefully we will get more players in the second Interprovincial Tournament next month in the North West Province and reinforce the squad, make it an even better team.

MM: With eight teams playing different styles of football – English, Italian, Dutch, South African, German – how was it playing against them?

TS:  Obviously it was not easy because those boys have been together for some time in their academies, they have solid basic skills of playing the game, they were nurtured from an early age and as you say the approaches were different. If you look at Stuttgart, PSV, AC Milan it was more or less easy for them to apply different tactics because of their tactical proficiency and technical strength, and it was challenging for us as South Africans, but then again we have talented players in this country.

Our main challenge is that our players were not nurtured from an early age but as coaches we had to come up with means to make sure that the boys can compete in this level and also show what they are made of. We also wanted to measure the standards and gauge the gap – it has been proven that the gap is getting closer. Most of the visiting teams were impressed with our standard, with our talent and they were generally impressed with the whole organisation.

One can only say it was a fruitful experience and there is a bright future in the development of South African football. In the near future we will have quality youngsters that will represent Bafana Bafana and also our local professional clubs. Hopefully some secure overseas contracts.

MM:      Having said that, how important are these tournaments and how regularly should they be played?

TS:          We need these kind of tournaments, if possible, two or three times a year. I am very happy that SAFA gave our boys and us an opportunity to be part of this event, we are also grateful to the organisers for the invitation. If you look at the European and some South American teams they develop better because they play against competitive sides in their normal weekend fixtures, whilst South African players don’t get to be tested against the best every weekend.

So it is very important that our boys get this kind of competition because you only develop when you play against the best, and this is what is lacking in South Africa. We don’t see our competitive academies like Ajax Cape Town maybe playing a league system against Kaizer Chiefs because of our geographical factors. But the sooner we try to solve that problem where our boys can travel countrywide playing the best academies, the sooner will be able to fast-track their development and we will be able to produce better players.

MM: Third place finish from eight teams, was that you expected?

TS: I must say I am very proud of the boys because out of the top eight teams we managed to get bronze. It was a good achievement for the boys, but you know as coaches we always want to achieve more, we want to see more success. But then again, looking at other factors like the little time we had with the boys, one can say that we are very proud with our third place finish.

We believe that it is a huge achievement, the display from the boys was very good and the results showed. And if you look at how the team did last year where we couldn’t get out of the group stages, now we not only got out but also came back with a bronze medal, this shows there is some improvement and shows we have a lot of talent in this country.