A crying shame for Maritzburg

2010-11-13 00:00

AROUND Pietermaritzburg the cry from football fans has gone out this week — “We was robbed”. The Premier Soccer League’s decision, whatever merit it might have had, to move Maritzburg United’s Telkom Knockout last-four match against Orlando Pirates next Sunday to Chatsworth Stadium has denied the city the chance to host a major semi-final.

The PSL’s position, under the advice of the Pretoria police, is that Harry Gwala Stadium could not be guaranteed a safe venue for a match of the size of a cup semi-final between two teams who both enjoy strong support in the midlands region. But the public perception — strengthened by the dubious reasoning offered by the Pretoria Visible Policing Division (VPD) — is that United have been bullied into moving the game to lose their home ground advantage. This theory, which might have more substance to it than to be labelled purely conspiracist, is fuelled by the Pietermaritzburg police having provided a letter to the PSL stating they have the capacity to hold the match in complete safely at Harry Gwala.

The comment of Brian Zuma, the city council’s marketing and communications manager, who was also once Maritzburg United’s PRO, was: “The treatment of MUFC by the PSL is despicable. Close to R100 million was spent on improving Harry Gwala Stadium so that it is top class and so that we don’t lose matches to Durban.

“Now this, just because the sponsors and the PSL want to see a Chiefs/Pirates final. We are very furious about this decision.

“The reasons are baseless. Pirates have played here, so have Chiefs, and there were no problems.”

It is easy to understand why Maritzburg United and their fans would be more than disappointed by the PSL’s decision. There were wild celebrations at Harry Gwala after United had beaten Mamelodi Sundowns 2-0 in the quarter-final, when the draw was conducted on the field and Maritzburg’s name was drawn first. Were those in vain? One can’t blame United’s supporters for feeling they have been deceived at some level.

The PSL says the matter is out of its hands. According to the new Safety at Sports Recreational Events Act, all venues for Category A (highest safety risk) PSL matches require a police clearance. According to the PSL the Pretoria VPD’s recommendation that Harry Gwala could not be guaranteed as safe for the game has taken the matter out of the league’s hands.

But the key points of the Pretoria police’s concerns on Harry Gwala for the game are highly questionable. If the sponsors or PSL, as the public perceives, did want to make circumstances slant towards a Kaizer Chiefs v Pirates final, could the Pretoria police have been fed false information on Harry Gwala?

The key issues in a letter sent to the PSL by the Pretoria police regarding safety at Harry Gwala are that:

• There is insufficient parking at the venue.

• There is insufficient space to have a ticket checking search zone away from the turnstiles.

• The routes to the stadium are very limited.

•There is no proper facility to accommodate the personnel of the VOC [police control centre]. At previous events a tent or caravan was set up inside the stadium.

Taking them one by one — there is a lot of parking at Harry Gwala on the surrounding stadium outer fields (five football pitches); more than there is at Chatsworth. The same applies for space around the turnstiles. The access routes to Harry Gwala are very good — seldom does it take more than 10 or 15 minutes to get in and out of the stadium, even for big matches. There are multiple exit and entry points to Harry Gwala from Alexander Road, Park Drive and College Road.

Traffic has been excellently marshaled by the Pietermaritzburg Traffic Department for major matches before. This was even the case at Woodburn Stadium for sold-out games against Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns in the past two seasons, which has worse access routes than Harry Gwala. Chatsworth Stadium has two major access routes and these are renowned for being clogged by traffic for major matches.

Lastly, if the VOC previously had to be accommodated in a tent or caravan at Harry Gwala — this was sufficient for previous major matches, so why not for a semi-final?

Basically, the question that it boils down to is: what is the difference between these facilities for a sold-out league match of 12 000 people, and a sold-out cup semi-final of the same attendance?

A precedent was set two seasons ago when Wits University hosted Chiefs at the 5 000-capacity Milpark Stadium in an all-ticket (tickets are sold only via Computicket in the days before the match, not at the ground) league game.

It’s all rather baffling. Conspiracy theories aside, though, even if this is just a blunder, it’s one that has denied Pietermaritzburg its first cup semi-final at the city’s expensively-renovated stadium.

And, of course, it has denied United home ground advantage. In recent months Maritzburg have beaten Pirates and Sundowns and drawn against Chiefs and SuperSport United at their home ground. For a small club trying desperately to attract a sponsor, cup success could go a long way.

An irony of the PSL’s decision is that at Harry Gwala a packed 50/50 United-Pirates crowd would have made for a better atmosphere and spectacle of a game than 15 000 fans in 25 000-seater Chatsworth Stadium, perhaps 1 000 of them supporting Maritzburg. This would have pleased the sponsors.

Probably the ultimate irony, though, is that just under a week after going to Durban to play Pirates in a cup semi-final, Maritzburg meet the Buccaneers again on Friday, November 26. The venue: Harry Gwala Stadium.

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