Soweto’s giants awakening

2010-10-30 00:00

SO often, just when you praise sporting teams or individuals they tend to go off the boil. Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates both have tough games this weekend. There is a more than decent chance both teams could end up losing when Bucs face Ajax Cape Town at Orlando Stadium tonight and Chiefs meet the champions, SuperSport United, in Atteridgeville tomorrow.

Even if they do though, that will not change the fact that the Soweto giants’ vastly improved form and threatening make-up of their line-ups has injected new life in the Premier Soccer League this season.

The PSL went into a period of slump around the mid-2000s. Where were the Robson Muchichwas, the Jerry Sikhosanas, Roger Feutmbas and Raphael Chukwus who had lit up the league in the late 1990s and early 2000s, fans asked? Chiefs did win the PSL in 2004 and 2005, but the team was not vintage material and the titles depended largely on the goals of one player, Collins Mbesuma.

The seasons in the build-up to the World Cup saw some sort of re-emergence of a better quality football. The R2,1 billion pumped into the league has resulted in a greater professionalism in the manner even smaller clubs are run and structured. Improved training regimes and broader coaching staff, including fitness trainers and dieticians, have resulted in a new level of fitness and faster action. To some extent this meant the skill factor took a back seat for a while.

The new fitness standard was also countered by the frenetically congested seasons in 2008/09 and 2009/10 to make room for the Confederations Cup and World Cup, with the break for the African Nations Cup last season adding a further spanner in the works.

To a large degree skop skiet en donder football emerged as a result, and possibly also a new win-at-all-costs mentality due to greater prize-money and the now much more lucrative advantages of staying in the PSL. This quite possibly adversely affected the more aristocratic teams like Chiefs, Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns, where a high priority is placed, not least from the supporters, on football that marries expression with success. It is easy to see how a team like SuperSport United, probably the best organised team off the field and with a highly competitive coach and compact, fighting squad who play pragmatic, winning football, might have benefited from this period.

Now the World Cup is gone and the PSL season has returned to a more breathable pace. Could this be part of the reason for expressive teams such as the Soweto giants and Sundowns settling down better at the start of the season? It seems a plausible theory. That, together with continuity in coaching staff and playing squads, has seen Chiefs and Pirates playing some stirring football, while Sundowns top the log.

The standard of coaches of the three teams is indicative of the financial muscle the PSL has now, and a reason why football in the league must continue to progress in the wake of the hosting of the World Cup. Bucs’ Ruud Krol played 83 times for the great Dutch total football team of the 1970s, and has coached top African teams Egypt and Zamalek. Sundowns’ Spanish coach Antonio Lopes Habas, who arrived as Hristo Stoichkov’s assistant, coached the Bolivian national team at two Copa America tournaments and had brief stints with Valencia and Celta Vigo in La Liga. Chiefs’ Vladimir Vermezovic has the least impressive CV of the three, but has played two games for his country, then Yugoslavia, and coached Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade.

Sundowns, as usual, are star-studded and expected to be serious challengers for the league title. Chiefs and Pirates too though, after a few seasons of mediocrity by their lofty standards, have the appearance of being among the frontrunners.

The Buccaneers have already won the MTN8 this season, their first official trophy of any form in seven years. Their semi-final played over two legs against Chiefs was engrossing, vastly entertaining and of a high standard, set against the spectacular backdrop of FNB Stadium. As is happening at almost all teams in the PSL at present, Bucs have exciting youngsters coming through to energise the experienced players, such as Andile Jali and Happy Jele. Clifford Ngobeni looks an increasingly astute signing from Ajax and is still only 23. The Bucs have looked in ruthless, aggressive form, and hungry for more silverware.

Chiefs might not have the depth in their squad of some of the other title challengers but their starting line-up has a complete look to it. Bafana Bafana stars Itumeleng Khune, Reneilwe Letsholonyane and Siphiwe Tshabalala are Vermezovic’s engine of his team, to drive youngsters such as Mandla Masango and Mthokozisi Yende. Knowledge Musona has the potential to be the league’s most lethal striker and Valery Nahayo, Dominic Isaacs, Jimmy Jambo and Jimmy Tau form a defence that has conceded three goals in nine games.

Throw in Ajax, SuperSport and Sundowns and the title race has the potential to be a cracker this season. Largely it is the re-emergence of the country’s best-supported Soweto giants that has created this scenario.

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