Tough debate — Lyle Foster mental health matter more complicated than pundits and naysayers proclaim

Tough debate — Lyle Foster mental health matter more complicated than pundits and naysayers proclaim
Lyle Foster of South Africa during the international friendly match between South Africa and DR Congo at Orlando Stadium on September 12, 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

Lyle Foster’s decision not to play in the Africa Cup of Nations as he continues receiving treatment for mental issues has sparked debate. Some have dismissed his struggles as being superficial, while others have backed the Burnley striker.

The 34th edition of Africa’s premier soccer contest — the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) — kicks off in a matter of hours. The opening match, between tournament hosts Ivory Coast and West African neighbours Guinea Bissau, will kick off the proceedings of the month-long soccer spectacle.

The showpiece starts on Saturday, 13 January and will feature some of Africa’s greatest players from the current generation. Including stars such as Liverpool and Egypt attacker Mohamed Salah, as well as Saudi Arabia-based Senegal forward Sadio Mané. Just to name a couple.

However, there are amazing players that will be missing this latest offering of Afcon. Nigeria’s Victor Boniface — who has been a key component to Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten Bundesliga season so far — is one. Owing to a groin injury.

England-based midfielder destroyers Thomas Partey (Ghana) and Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria) are also out of contention due to a hamstring and muscle injury respectively.

For South Africa — the absence of Burnley striker Lyle Foster is sure to be felt strongly. Especially as his absence, alongside France-based fellow forward Lebo Mothiba (with a knee injury), means South Africa’s goals will have to come from as many different departments as possible.

Particularly if Bafana Bafana are to have an Afcon as memorable as the one they had on debut in the tournament back in 1996. They were victors during that edition, which took place in South Africa two years after the country’s first democratic elections.

Lyle Foster, mental health

Lyle Foster inaction for Burnley. (Photo: Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images)

‘Why Burnley but not Bafana?’

Foster is continuing his recovery from the mental issues which saw him miss matches for Burnley between 21 October and 16 December. He returned to action during his side’s 2-0 defeat to Everton. Coming on as a second-stanza substitute.

Despite returning to the field for his club, Foster wrote to the South African Football Association (Safa) asking to not be considered for Afcon. To the frustration of Bafana Bafana Belgian coach Hugo Broos.  

“This is medical. Don’t ask me why, but the risk is still there that if it goes in a bad direction with Lyle, he goes back to where he started three months ago,” Broos stated.

“I’m not happy that he’s not there, because he’s a very good striker. But again, this is a medical decision. I can’t do anything about it.”

Hugo Broos

Hugo Broos, coach of Bafana Bafana. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images)

Since then, some South Africans have labelled Foster as being selfish and choosing his club over the national team. Among those South Africans was former Bafana Bafana skipper and former Blackburn Rovers defender Aaron Mokoena.

Mokoena, speaking to SABC Sport’s Thabiso Mosia, suggested that Burnley might have pressured Foster into making the decision not to represent South Africa at Afcon. Especially when Europe’s relationship with the Afcon is considered.

“It pains me that we don’t know whether this was Lyle Foster’s decision, or the club’s. If the [responsibility fell on Lyle Foster to decide] it’s easy. Come and play for the country. If you really want to. The question is does he want to or not?” Mokeona said.

“You have to be bold enough to say that ‘I don’t want to play for the national team anymore’. Some of the players, back in our years, did that. I can mention Benni McCarthy. He said it… It’s easy to say it. Because if he has those mental problems, why is he still playing at Burnley?”

Expert opinion

According to respected South African sports psychologist Koketjo Tsebe, who worked with Banyana Banyana during their memorable 2023 Women’s World Cup campaign — mental health is not that black and white.

Speaking to Daily Maverick, the former Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans recipient, said that from the outside all we can do is speculate. Only Foster and the practitioners entrusted with bringing the striker back to his optimum performance levels truly know what he is experiencing at the moment.    

“His focus is probably on recovering and taking it one step at a time. Healing is a process and it has different stages… If you are managing a physical injury, it goes through different stages of rehab. A similar approach is taken in relation to mental health,” Tsebe told Daily Maverick.

“It’s also based on how comfortable the player is and where the player is at mentally, in terms of the different steps necessary to return fully… Management is similar to being discharged from a hospital. You’d still be booked off sick, before you fully integrate back,” Tsebe continued.

Dr Koketjo Tsebe

Banyana Banyana Team Psychologist, Dr Koketjo Tsebe. (Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

“So, the philosophy in management from an athletic context is to gradually integrate back to peak performance. It involves managing your fears [on a day-to-day basis].”

Much like former Bafana captain Mokoena, South Africans have asked why it is that Foster can handle the pressures of playing for his relegation-threatened English Premier League club, but can’t go to the month-long Afcon in Ivory Coast.  

“There are always different factors that play a role [in setting someone back or boosting the speed of their recovery]. Personal circumstances. Environmental factors,” Tsebe said. “[The patient’s] coping techniques and their resilience. In this case, most likely (we are not privy to the internal information) … If certain recommendations are made, they are made on strong grounds. Which need to be respected.”

Advocacy is key

Speaking openly about one’s mental struggles has generally been shunned in the sports community. A taboo subject. However, recently, stars such as former Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, gymnastic great Simone Biles and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka have been some of the athletes who have been open about the internal struggles they have faced, despite their success.

“While advocacy is important for mental health in sports, it’s always good when it’s coming from different angles. The media. Practitioners. Academics. And most importantly, the athletes. Because it’s different when we speak about this from the other side. But also hearing from those who are brave enough to share their stories makes it easier for the athletes to seek out help,” Tsebe said.

“There’s always debate around gender. Which gender is most likely going to suffer from mental health. But you also have male athletes [speaking out]. Remember the cultural dynamics… You are a man [so you must suck it up],” Tsebe stated.

“When one is performing at their peak and they are doing well, there’s an assumption that everything is okay. But it comes with so much pressure and stress. That’s why when some people look back at their prime in sports, they realise that they were not happy. They were on auto-pilot

“Of course, they won medals. They made money. They were in the news. They were the pride of their nation. But maybe it’s a phase which is also marked by a lot of tribulations. But because their focus was entirely on getting the results, they neglected their emotional well-being. Maybe they had to choose which one to prioritise.”

In this instance, Foster has chosen himself and his well-being. Being with Burnley as opposed to Bafana Bafana is part of that. Even if some may not understand his decision. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    I would also develop mental health issues if I were asked to play for Banana Banana. Even playing for Burnley is better than this.

  • David Gorin says:

    It’s difficult to read this article. The syntax is so disjointed. It’s like driving a car in 1st gear, jerking, stop-start motion.
    That aside, the underlying topic isn’t new. It happens in almost all international football competitions. Players prioritise things in their lives, just like we all do. Anybody remember Johan Cruyff giving the 1978 World Cup a miss? Would his presence have swung the knife-edged final in favour of the Dutch?

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