A step in the right direction

2011-07-23 00:00

FOOTBALL in KwaZulu-Natal received a massive boost this week when the news emerged that July 31 has been set aside as the date for the first ever KZN Premier’s Cup — a one-day tournament that will see the province’s four major teams compete against each other in a knockout format until one remains.

First Division outfit Thanda Royal Zulu will take on AmaZulu in the morning’s first semi-final before Maritzburg United lock horns with Lamontville Golden Arrows — now fittingly managed by former United boss Ernst Middendorp — in a lunchtime kick–off. The winners of the two semi-finals will meet in a 4 pm final and the winner will be crowned champions and hold bragging rights in the province.

When one thinks of football derbies in South Africa, KZN isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Even Bloemfontein has its derby day when Celtic meets Free State Stars, and we all know the role that Soweto plays in such affairs.

At the launch of the new Premier’s Cup in Durban this week, the chairmen … or chairpersons … of the four participating clubs were asked to share a few words on what the tournament meant to them. Enter Mato Madlala, chairperson of Golden Arrows. Never one to shy away from saying what she thinks, Madlala proceeded to do just that — the presence of the province’s esteemed MEC for Arts, Culture, Sport and Recreation, Weziwe Thusi, did nothing to detract her from making her point.

“People want to know why we [KZN’s PSL clubs] underperform, but we do not even know which ground we are training at from day-to-day,” she pointed out.

“I am saying, in front of the MEC, that we need to work more closely with the department so that we can start improving the game in our province.”

There is no doubt that what Madlala said was perfectly acceptable, and she did so with an eloquence that demanded respect from those in the room, raising a point valid enough to elicit a deafening response from the province’s football critics who were present.

Her sentiments were echoed by those who followed her, including Maritzburg chairperson Farouk Kadodia.

Surely the provincial government has to be doing more to aid its local sides. Year after year, KZN produces young players who make their way into the bright lights of the PSL. There are players who are originally from our province scattered all over the country’s top league. Somebody told me at Monday’s launch that more than half of the players currently playing in the PSL are originally from KZN.

It is puzzling, then, that we have sides like Arrows and our very own Maritzburg United that get by with the amount of help that they enjoy from government. It is simply not acceptable for a first tier side to be moved around from one grassless pitch to the next while they try and prepare for their matches.

Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs are the crown jewels of Soweto. Their rivalry is, in the eyes of many, the fiercest on the continent. Granted, there is a history attached to the following of these two clubs that is unique, but this does not explain the lack of interest in local derbies in our province.

This is precisely where government can step in, and have done with the launching of the Premier’s Cup.

The tournament will hopefully be a success and be repeated next year. More importantly, it has the potential to ignite the derby-like atmosphere that has been missing in our province. Fans of four different neighbouring clubs grouped together in one stadium will surely bring about enough banter to create a competitive atmosphere. And if this competitive atmosphere spills over into the PSL, then league matches between Amazulu, Maritzburg and Arrows might just have a bit more about them and hopefully catch the attention of supporters.

The result? More bums on seats, a healthy interest in our KZN sides and a stronger football following in the province. It all starts with one initiative, though, and it remains to be seen whether or not the Premier’s Cup can provide a big enough spark. But the tournament, as well as government’s long overdue assistance, is certainly a step in the right direction.

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