When I spoke recently with Shaun Bartlett, the retired South African striker who spent two years in MLS with the Colorado Rapids and MetroStars, he was surprised to learn the answer to an MLS trivia question: Who had the biggest transfer fee in MLS history for a two-year period from 1997 to '99?
Answer: Shaun Bartlett, MLS to Zurich, 1997, $1.3 million. Only Stern John's $3 million move to Nottingham Forest two years later took Bartlett out of the No. 1 spot.
Bartlett, who scored 28 goals in 74 caps with the South African national team, went on to play for six years with Charlton Athletic in the English Premiership before returning to South Africa and retiring in 2008. Since then, Bartlett has become a rising star in television soccer commentary for the African sports network SuperSport. When I lived in South Africa for seven months recently, I enjoyed hearing the back-and-forth between Bartlett and TV partner Doctor Khumalo -- another former Bafana Bafana star who played in the U.S. back in the day. (Viva 1990s MLS!)
Bartlett and I caught up by talking about his entry into player development, his concerns about South Africa's World Cup chances, his TV work, and Bafana Bafana manager Carlos Alberto Parreira, who also coached Bartlett at the MetroStars. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: What have you been up to lately in South Africa?
Bartlett: The last three days I've been recovering. I did a mountain-bike race for eight days. It's regarded as the toughest mountain-bike race in the world: the ABSA Cape Epic. It's a race of 722 kilometers, and over those eight days you climb twice the height of Mt. Everest. We climbed about 14,000 meters of mountains. I'm still recovering from it.
SI.com: What's up with you on the soccer front? Coaching? Television?
Bartlett: A bit of both. I work with SuperSport, which is sort of a mini-ESPN. We cover all the EPL games and Champions League and international games. The company itself shows close to 400 live games a year, which means any given weekend we should six to eight live games.
Then last year in August I went away to the U.K. and got my Level 3 coaching license. That's another area I'm hoping to explore pretty soon. I've started putting it to good use with my technical sponsor Nike. We've gone on the American concept called Boot Camp. We've started that with soccer in South Africa. We had our first one in January -- 300 kids every day for three days -- and the next one is coming up next week. What we're hoping to achieve is after three or four Boot Camps we want to select 20 kids and take them across Brazil and try to produce football players for the national team in South Africa.
SI.com: I wanted to ask you about the South African national team. The team has a tough World Cup group: France, Mexico and Uruguay. What do you think are the chances that South Africa gets out of the group?
Bartlett: It's going to be very difficult. They were just in Brazil on a four-week camp, trying to make sure they can improve on the weaknesses we've had for quite a long time. My feeling is that I don't think it's enough time for the players to prepare in order to progress and put on a good show at the World Cup. That's very unfortunate. And that's part of the reason we started the Boot Camps. Unfortunately in South Africa there's too much focus on the top level and not too much going in the development stage where most of the money should be plowed in and give the kids a foundation to build on for the future.
SI.com: Compared to when you were playing on the national team in the 1990s, South Africa's ranking internationally isn't nearly as high. In the latest FIFA rankings, South Africa is No. 88, and it got as high as No. 16 in 1996 after winning the Africa Cup of Nations. This year South Africa didn't qualify for the ACN. Why do you think the South African team has fallen so far since 1996?
Bartlett: I think from the federation side we sort of became a victim of our own success very early. To win the Africa Cup of Nations six years after being readmitted to international football and then suddenly we host the tournament and end up winning it, our federation probably thought this is the team that's going to take the country to higher levels. Unfortunately, at that time I think 80 percent of that squad was growing old together. Nobody thought about when these players do retire, where are the young players going to come from?
That's something that's been a major problem for our federation. Everything is short-term, nothing is really planned way ahead. We knew six years ago that we were going to have the World Cup in South Africa, and everybody else knew that something needed to be done in order to produce a good team that can compete at the highest level, except the federation. It's something that we're certainly trying to change the mindset of the people that are in charge of football in South Africa. Until that changes, there's not going to be a real success for any national team, for that matter, as far as soccer is concerned.
SI.com: We see South African midfielder Steven Pienaar a lot here in America because he plays for Everton with Americans like Tim Howard and, until recently, Landon Donovan. How much pressure will there be on Pienaar during the World Cup, and how much more is he expected to do for South Africa than he does for Everton?
Bartlett: I think the beauty of him playing in the EPL is obviously giving him good exposure and he's learning his trade and he's improving as a player individually. But coming back to South Africa he's only going to be as good as the players that surround him. At Everton he's playing with top-quality players like Howard, [Tim] Cahill, [Marouane] Fellaini. That's not going to be the case, unfortunately, coming to the World Cup. So the pressure will be immense on him, and he'll have to try and carry the team forward as much as possible because of the fact that many people have seen him the last nine months playing for Everton and expecting he can carry that form through the World Cup with South Africa itself. I think besides Pienaar, everybody is hoping that Benni McCarthy can also come through and produce some goals and try to help.
SI.com: Carlos Alberto Parreira is in his second stint coaching South Africa. What have you learned about Parreira from watching him as a coach?
Bartlett: I had the opportunity to play under him at the MetroStars for a few months. The one thing I do know is he's very professional. He likes analyzing the opponent to the bone and making sure that he can exploit weaknesses. That's something he's obviously trying to do as well with the South African national team, and he's trying to work on their strength, which is moving the ball around at speed and utilizing skill in order to open up defenses.
SI.com: If you were going to predict the lineup that you think Parreira might go with on June 11 against Mexico, what do you think it might be?
Bartlett: That's a tough one, because even at this moment I don't think Parreira knows what his lineup is going to be. It's up in the air. In some respects I think he's been too loyal to some of the players that are still in that squad that shouldn't really be there. Because on form a lot of those players shouldn't even be in the national team. But because of names and because of what they've done for Parreira in the past he feels they should be part of the squad. So I'm just hoping that's not going to be a negative impact or the downfall of this side.
SI.com: Are there any young or unexpected South Africa players that you think might break out and make an impact at the World Cup?
Bartlett: I've been impressed the few times I've seen him with the left back [Tsepo] Masilela. I think he's one of the most promising young players: very good defensively, he's got speed and looks pretty strong, and he can go forward as well. The only sort of weakness that he's got is his final delivery, crossing the ball into the danger area. I hope it's something he's been working on for the past few months.
SI.com: I recently wrote a feature for Sports Illustrated magazine on Matthew Booth. What do you think he brings to the South African team on the field?
Bartlett: Besides the fact that he's head and shoulders above the rest? (laughs) Obviously, he's a figure that you can't miss on the field, especially with the current South Africa team. He's probably twice the size of 60 percent of the squad. I had the opportunity to play with Matthew quite a few years with the national team. I think he's expanded his game playing in Russia and in Europe and coming back to South Africa and bringing that experience with him. A lot of people question his speed, but in my opinion he's got a good head on his shoulders, he reads the game well and he's probably one of the best man-markers South Africa has. His size can be very intimidating, and hopefully that will be a factor that he can utilize during the World Cup.
SI.com: Who do you like to win the World Cup?
Bartlett: You have South Africa in your heart, but I do know that as far as ability is concerned it's never going to happen. I do think at this stage Spain has the best squad assembled from the back to the front, and they're my favorites to win the World Cup.