When the moneyed giants of the hockey world came to Africa they came with medical teams and salaries. When Africa’s number one team, South Africa, took to the pitch they had to answer emails, design apps, and study at the side of the pitch.

Another contrast, champions Belgium could afford to hand out shirts to supporters. The South African team – struggled to get time off to play.

One of these working South African players is Lonwabo Owen Mvimbi, a recruitment consultant for Mindcor group, a midfielder with 40 caps for his country. While the Belgian professionals were taking ice baths and putting their feet up in between matches, Mvimbi was sending emails, going to work and catching up on missed training in the dark of night.

“I was lucky that work was 10 minutes from the hotel, and five minutes from the field. I was doing that trip constantly, at least three times a week,” says midfielder Mvimbi.

“On the days I wasn’t playing a game, I would be at work the whole day. When people were doing video sessions [studying opponents] in the day, I would be doing it at night, when I was done with work for the day. On match days I would spend maybe an hour in the office, and then do work emails from the hotel. It wasn’t too bad, I could come and go to the office, everyone at work knew what I was doing and they were very supportive of it.”

Lonwabo Owen Mvimbi (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Over 16 days, Mvimbi and the rest of the stressed South African squad fought it out with the elite of the world game on the astroturf at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. Here 10 countries competed in the semifinals of the International Hockey Federation Hockey World League (HWL), one of the largest international hockey tournaments on the globe. Up for grabs was a coveted qualification spot for the 2018 World Cup and a ticket to the 2017 HWL finals in India.

For the South Africans, this was a rare chance for amateurs and semi-professionals – teachers, students, and real estate agents – to take on top players, who do this for a living, in their own backyard.

“Most of us are students or working. I’d say seven out of the squad are professional players,” says Mvimbi.

It was never going to be easy. South Africa (rank 15) needed to finish in fifth place; a single win against the likes of Belgium (5), Ireland (10), Germany (3) and their African rivals Egypt (19) would have put them in good stead.

“The difficulty in this is there is pressure from both sides; to perform at work and to perform on the field,” says Mvimbi.

The 29-year-old Mvimbi is playing hockey by chance. When he was 15 he broke his collarbone playing rugby at school and had to change sports.

“I’ve made a lot of financial sacrifices. Because of my hockey, my career grows slowly. I’m more focused on my sports career, even though my hockey career is going to end soon, maybe in the next five years, whereas my work is going to continue,” says Mvimbi.

South Africa was under-prepared. The team had a year to build a side to beat the best. Yet, team selections were held three weeks before the tournament and the squad got together three days before kick-off.

This is not new. In the last two years, South Africa has managed to hold a mere three training camps.

“With the pace of world hockey at the moment, if you miss a two-year cycle, then you fall off the pace quite a bit. Due to funding issues, it’s been hard to stay together as a squad. People are staying at other players’ houses to save [money],” says Austin Smith, a senior South African player who reached a milestone 150 caps during the tournament.

“For a whole year, our squad didn’t even see each other, we didn’t do anything together. Then you see the differences when you meet up again, the connections just aren’t there. You need to re-grow those connections from player to coach all over again,” says Smith.

Austin Smith (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Smith is one of a handful of South African players to play overseas. With 12 years’ experience, the former captain Smith lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where he is contracted to Dutch side HC Den Bosch and the Hockey India League’s Delhi Waveriders. The Dutch league is considered to be one of the strongest leagues in the world; here it is usual for clubs to run with hundreds of members and some clubs have as many as eight astroturf pitches. In Africa, you are lucky to have one.

“Our club side, at junior level, is going to train four times a week in addition to mental training and   conditioning work. The level of professionalism goes all the way down,” says Smith.

When Smith first sent his CV to Europe, clubs weren’t interested.

“Initially, when I went to Den Bosch, I was too arrogant. I had just become the national captain, I had 50 caps. I thought surely I will be able to get a contract in the Netherlands. I wrote to all the hockey clubs and they all said no.”

“A month later the Den Bosch coach wrote back and said we could maybe use you as a defender and you would basically be playing for free. So I had accommodation and a few Euros and that was it. I had to go and prove myself.”

Smith believes Africa needs to catch up.

“In South Africa we can be guilty of choosing players who can do flashy things at a young age. In my opinion, we should be identifying players who we think are going to be able to become professional.  If you look at the stats of players going from the under-16 national team to the men’s national team, it is actually small,” says Smith.

There is latent talent in South African school hockey which is growing thanks to more astroturf pitches. Most of the senior South African players, like Smith, grew up playing hockey on bumpy grass.

“If I look at the ability of the squad coming into the side, compared to when I was entering the squad in 2004, the guys now are far more skillful than I ever was. It’s hugely positive and it shows now that most schools have a strong influence. Schools, these days, have access to an astroturf. For half the hockey population, when I was growing up, that definitely wasn’t the case.”

Back on the astroturf at Wits, as many as 14,972 fans braved cold nights to watch the best of the best. For such a critical tournament, an unprepared side was the last thing South Africa wanted.

“Being forced to choose between work and life over playing what you love the most is hard. If it was paid, everyone would be here,” says Mark Sanders, a South Africa National Selector.

“It’s highly frustrating. I can understand [coach Fabian Gregory’s] frustration levels, when you can only have a team meeting at this time because some players who are Joburg based are working. Even the guys who aren’t working, you’ve got students who need to study. It’s not the easiest time being in a professional sport,” says Sanders.

On the field, the difference was brutal. Against the slick and salaried Belgium, who picked up a silver medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics, South Africa lost 9-1.

“It boils down to how long a camp scenario is. Our last camp was three days, whereas if you look at the Belgium camp it was 21 days,” says Sanders.

In other games versus Germany and Ireland, South Africa showed signs of promise. The team had many chances but couldn’t come home with a win. The team lacked the consistency and confidence needed to win.

“When you are in a high-pressure moment, you don’t have time to think, you need to move instinctually. You see a ball move in a direction and your body knows it’s got to run to a certain place, because you have done it 10,000 times before,” says Smith.

“When those things don’t come naturally, especially with how fast the international level has become, you don’t have time to react. That’s the biggest difference between the top teams and everybody else, they can play far quicker than the lower teams can.”

Money is a more difficult opponent. There is next to no budget for South African hockey and the men’s side has failed to secure a major sponsor for years. The players have to chip in for the millions needed to play overseas.

“I’ve spent R12,000 this year to play for my country,” says Jethro Eustice.

Jethro Eustice (Photo by Jay Caboz)

Eustice, who has 80 caps for South Africa, was also working over the tournament. When he wasn’t on the field playing for his country, he was designing an app for generic drug company Aspen. In addition to completing a master’s degree in  IT commerce, Eustice also coaches the women’s team at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Pietermaritzburg.

“You would think I would be sitting around in front of a computer, rather than on the hockey field. If you want to be a professional hockey player, you can’t do it South Africa. I am coaching to keep my playing profession going,” says Eustice.

Eustice believes that televising university hockey has helped.

“That’s what’s nice for the under-18 guys. They are finishing matric and looking to go to university to play hockey and continue their studies. High performance programs have changed the university level. That’s why the standard has been raised. We are looking at athletes. When we were around, there were maybe 14 athletes and then the other four were just there to enjoy the party. Now it’s 18 athletes that have to be physically ready and technically ready to play. The sides that don’t have that tend to fall short by the end of the week.”

Overall most say hockey is struggling. In the high-pressure match against Egypt the lack of experience showed. Egypt, South Africa’s nearest rivals, should have been an easy win. Instead they lost 3-2.

“There needs to be a wake-up call and we need to be cognizant of it. It’s frustrating times,” says Sanders.

“Has hockey progressed in the last four years? To be honest, I’m not sure I’m a firm believer it has. We’ve had some good results at the summer series against the likes of Germany and Belgium, our result against Germany [lost 4-3] the other night was incredible. But it’s once every now and then, and I think that’s the frustrating part. If we cannot consistently beat a side like Egypt I think we’ve got to seriously have a look at ourselves, from selection to player performance, to management performance, the whole lot.”

South Africa’s hockey team (Photo by Jay Caboz)

There is also the task of finding a new national coach. Gregory resigned to take up the position of Head Coach at the Valley Hockey Club in Hong Kong.

“Playing overseas doesn’t help us. It may help on an individual basis, the players that go overseas go over and learn a lot and play to exceptionally high standards. But we don’t get to have them here for all the major competitions here. If we could manage our calendars, we could put our best players forward,” says Sanders.

The tournament could have been the wake-up call South African hockey needs.

“We’ve got a lot of competitions coming up. We’ve got the All–Africa Games, we’ve got the Commonwealth Games, we’ve got Olympics 2020 to look forward to. The decisions need to happen right now,” says Sanders.

It can be done. As a last thought Belgium did not participate in world class level hockey before 2008, the year they qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 32 years. Nine years on, thanks to salaries and better organization, they are a superpower at the top of the hockey heap. Maybe Africa should take note.