Athletically and academically gifted youth need support

Few people would know the name Itumeleng Modise. He was my classmate and one of the greatest footballers South Africa never had. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago.

Few people would know the name Itumeleng Modise. He was my classmate and one of the greatest footballers South Africa never had. Sadly, he passed away a couple of years ago.

Modise played in the Orlando Pirates youth teams and as far as I know played in one pre-season friendly for the first team in a match against Kaizer Chiefs.

Sowetan raved about Pirates unearthing a gem in the little player everybody called Maradona on account of his stocky build similar to that of the Argentine great.

In class Maradona was an exceptional student. One mathematics teacher once remarked that marking his script was as if the teacher was marking his own memorandum. He was a perfect teenager who by all accounts was a great player in the making.

You don't need to take my word for it, you could ask the great Doctor Khumalo.

Maradona, for whatever reason, chose to pursue an academic career instead of a footballing one. Academe and engineering's gain became football's loss.

This is not Itumeleng's obituary or biography. Today will see rugby's Varsity Cup final between Maties (University of Stellenbosch) and Pukke (North West University). The best rugby playing university students will be live on TV showing off that they are not only academically inclined, but have an athletic streak in them.

If Itumeleng was a rugby talent, he would have never had had to choose between academics and the sport he loved and was talented at.

Many players in today's professional game are, or were either at university through rugby scholarships or at a rugby academy where they also developed academically.

The Stormers and Western Province measure their future on the strength of the Maties first team, just like the (Blue) Bulls find comfort or stress on the abilities of the Tukkies (University of Pretoria) team.

It is therefore no surprise that Jannie du Plessis famously received a call-up to the glorious 2007 World Cup winning team while he, a medical doctor, was preparing a patient for a Caesarean section.

He was not an exceptional case.

Brendan Venter, who played centre in the 1995 World Cup winning team, and former Blue Bulls and Springbok hooker Uli Schmidt were also rugby-playing medical doctors.

Rugby has been able to achieve these things because in many instances the captains of South African industries are fans and sometimes former star players themselves (think Louis Luyt).

The challenge is therefore on the new black moneyed classes who have influence at various corporations to reverse the lie that the beautiful game is played and supported by ruffians, the less ambitious or the academically challenged.

There are many Maradonas out there. For example, Ratha Mokgoatlheng, a former Pirates star and Chiefs co-founder, is now a high court judge. Khulu Sibiya, another former Buccaneer, is a former newspaper editor and presently M-Net chairperson.

If rugby can take care of its assets and help them develop holistically, so can football.

We should place those things that matter to us, like football and academic achievements, squarely on the national and the corporate agenda and push for an equitable share of the sponsorship cake.

The beautiful game belongs in the university campuses just like rugby or squash.

Young and talented footballers deserve sports scholarship and TV fame just as their rugby counterparts.

Former French captain and World Cup winner Lillian Thuram put it best when he wrote: "There will never really be a Republic until the best dribbler in the street can also one day become an engineer, or the boss of a company, or a trade union official and everyone thinks it is perfectly normal."