A Wanderer called Fish still loves the English game
HIS wandering days may now be over, but the footballer who came from South Africa via Italy to play for the Whites believes it is still the best path for young African players to tread.
Mark Fish found a home at Wanderers in 1997 to develop his game off the back of an historic African Cup of Nations win for his homeland the previous year.
These days, the 38-year-old is more focused on providing housing for the millions of homeless people back in his native South Africa in his role as a consultant for the construction industry.
But he keeps a keen eye on football across the continent and believes the Cup of Nations tournament in his country, which ended at the weekend, illustrates how important a move to Europe is for African stars.
When once it was Fish and compatriots Lucas Radebe and Quinton Fortune from South Africa, Radhi Jaidi of Tunisia and Mido from Egypt making names for themselves in the English game, now it is the Toure brothers of Ivory Coast, Victor Moses from Nigeria and Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo who are the European-based superstars.
That is illustrated by the success of the West African nations in the tournament which was won by Nigeria on Sunday.
Fish believes that shift in power, as well as a bureaucratic South African Football Federation that has not built on the success of hosting the 2010 World Cup, is the reason the hosts failed to get past the quarter-finals this year, and why South Africa are 85th in the current FIFA rankings, below the likes of Mali and Sierra Leone.
The former Reebok defender said: “Going to play in Europe is what you dream of as a young player in Africa and that is still the best route to develop your game for me.
“I was lucky in the fact we had just won the Cup of Nations and there were avenues open to us to go to Europe and I initially went to Lazio before joining Bolton.
“Many followed but it has been more western African players recently and that is why their teams are currently the best on the continent for me.
“It was illustrated in this year’s Cup of Nations when it was South Africa and seven West African nations in the last eight and a lot of their players play in England in what, for me, is still the best league in the world. Apart from the Ivory Coast’s exit, there weren’t that many surprises for me; they had the best squad on paper but lost to another good team in Nigeria in the quarter-finals.
“I was not surprised with South Africa because we have been on a bit of a downward spiral.
“There are a lot of problems with football in our country and I put a lot down to the Federation.
“The league is now well run, and the players are there, but because the money is better they prefer to stay rather than go abroad to test themselves, and lack that desire we had.
“Maybe they don’t want to sit on cold benches; footballers have changed since my day.
“But as far as the national side goes, we haven’t seen the money from the top filter down to help develop players; we haven’t built on what was a great World Cup.
“We got great new stadia that are rarely used; I know because as well as the consultancy to build the much-needed new homes in my country, I am also involved in advertising and we have contracts for two stadia.
“The Federation doesn’t listen to ex-players like myself or Lucas or Quinton. I think they may see us as a threat but we just want to give youngsters a chance.
“Before I got into the construction thing in the last two years, I was part of a five-year programme backed by Nestle to take football into schools and help build pitches and get kids into institutes, but even that down-sized. It’s all frustrating.”
It is not all doom and gloom for some young footballers, though – Fish regularly watches his two boys Luke, aged 14, and Zeke, 11, play.
Luke was born in Preston while Fish was playing for Wanderers, and Zeke was born in London, meaning both qualify to play for England.
Fish laughs off that idea but says if they keep developing and inherit his footballing talent, he would love them to play on these shores.
He adde: “Luke is nearly as tall as me at 14 – he is nearly 6ft already and plays at centre-back like me.
“Zeke is not as physical and likes to play wide; he’s more Scott Sellars than Mark Fish.
“If they develop like I did, I would be on the first plane over with them to get them to Bolton.
“ I had three great years there, despite the bad moments like relegation, the play-off final against Watford and the two semi-final defeats against Aston Villa and Tranmere in 2000.
“The club was like a family and the people were great with me away from the pitch as well; I loved the Bolton fans and hope they see their team get back to the Premier League like they did soon after I left a decade ago.”
Who knows? If they do, there may be one or two more footballing Fish calling Wanderers home in the top flight one day.