|Home to the Stars: Bethlehem in the Free State|
And there’s more, don’t go away, this really is a footballing tale of note …
Yet in thy dark streets shineth/The everlasting Light/The hopes and fears of all the years/Are met in thee tonight
Yes, Bethlehem. Birth place of the legendary Jesus H Christ? No, Bethlehem in the Free State actually. Population 66,704. Home of a whole constellation of silent stars from all over Africa who go under the collective name of Free State Stars.
When Rector Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Philadelphia, wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he probably didn’t envisage it would precise a footballing miracle nearly 150 years later.
But it does. Neatly, for a side whose goalkeeper has scored as many League goals this season as Benni McCarthy.
Nestled on Liebenbergs Vlei, along a fertile valley just south of the Rooiberg Mountains on the N5 highway, our modest All Stars have fashioned a football team which has taken the Rainbow Nation by storm this summer. Currently third in the South Africa Premier League, they are out-gunning the giants of Soweto, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Only Gavin Hunt’s gritty Supersports United and the millionaires of Mamelodi Sundowns currently outshine Steve Komphela’s All Stars.
In winter, it can be the chilliest place in the country. At an altitude of 1700m, temperatures have been known to plummet to a frosty 11 degrees below zero in July. Yes, the toe-numbing climate goes against the grain but hey, the place is named after its wheat granaries, hence "Beit Lechem" (Hebrew for "house of bread").
They play their home games at versatile Goble Park – capacity 20,000, Free State hosted two first class cricket games there in the 1930s - the local township is called Bohlokong (Sesotho for "place of pain") and they expected a bit of discomfort at Soccer City last night (Saturday, 17 December), when they came up against Kaizer Motaung’s gold-and-black striped Amakhosi, level with Ea Lla Koto on 24 points, just four adrift of top dogs Supersport.
But fear not, defeat cannot dim the light cast in Bethlehem this Christmas. Their final game before the Festive break comes against the formidable Sundowns, but you won’t find Stars’ general manager Rantsi Mokoena chewing his nails. He told the club’s website: "Our team is a work in progress – but the truth is, I expect us to maintain our form.
“It is not a fluke we are third in the table. A fluke is when you win three or four games and people make noise about that and then you lose five games. We have won four and drawn the other one in the past five matches and that is consistency.
"We have retained players that traditionally we could have sold. We didn't have Paulus Masehe and Manti Moholo when we beat Maritzburg United away from home, but we got the three points.
"Previously, we could have been rattled if we didn't have those players, but now we say 'let's go there and get the three points', confidently so.
"There are players such as Mpho Makola – what a player he is – and Thabo Matlaba, who haven't seen a lot of game-time. We rate Thabo very highly, but we are sitting among the top teams without him.
"To show you the kind of confidence we show in our players, have a look at Rudiger Gilbert. He kept disappearing last season and made just 10 appearances. He did some introspection and realised he couldn't carry on like that.
“To be fair, the boy's mother was seriously ill last season and eventually passed away and I think that really disturbed him. Now he is having his best season in football, he has missed just one game all season and that was through suspension.
“Facilities are a big challenge here but from a privacy point of view, training at the local army base works for us.”
The Stars one problem? Referees. Boss Komphela, a former Kaizer Chief with a lengthy CV in South African footballing circles (Baby Bafana, Manning Rangers, Platinum Stars and Dynamos amongst others), says: “We are a small team, we do not complain about referees, instead we use them as motivation. We have had at least five points stolen from us this season by decisions (a goal unfairly denied against Platinum Stars and two goals against both Supersport and local rivals Bloemfontein Celtic) but referees are human.
“If a mistake is a deliberate act, then it raises suspicions. But we are on track. I am aiming for two points against Chiefs and Sundowns. We have capable players who can go all the way.
“The West African players our scouts found at a tournament up north have stabilised the team in all departments. Mix them with the local boys and we have a very competent outfit.”
Originally founded in 1977 as Makwane Computer Stars in a small village in Qwa-Qwa, the club gained promotion into the 1st division of the NPSL in 1986.
Sponsorship was secured from Fairways Supermarket and the side moved from Makwane to Phuthadithjaba, the hub of Qwa-Qwas`s economy. As Fairways Stars, the side grew in popularity and eventually became Qwa Qwa Stars with the Basotho slogan “Ea Lla Kotto” or ”fight to the end”.
The club's franchise was sold to the Premier Soccer League in 2002. A year later, Mike Mokoena revived the club and and in 2005, as Free State Stars, they were back in the Premiership after winning the Mvela Golden League.
They went straight back down but battled back to secure their top flight status in 2007–08. They list coach Komphela as their most-capped Bafana Bafana player with 10 international appearances (he actually won 24) and Bunene Ngaduana as the club’s historic top scorer with 79 goals (he scored 19 in 1993) while they list a record defeat of 7-1 against a certain Mamelodi Sundowns in 1998.
So what else can we tell you about the current side, who practice at the local defence force base and get changed in the car park before training? I can offer their captain Kennedy Mweene, a Zambian goalkeeper who likes to take penalties. He’s scored three times from the spot this season, which puts him level it a certain Mr McCarthy and Stars’ top scorer Katlego Mashego in the SAPL top-scorers’ list so far.
Mweene says on the club’s website www.freestatestars.co.za: “I am confident that we will reach 30 points before the Christmas break and that despite having to play the so called big teams and with the mood and confidence high in the camp I see nobody stopping us.
“In the past season we used to drop points with the “smaller” teams but tables have turned, we have been beating them left right and centre and playing Chiefs and Sundowns back-to-back is a motivation on its own.
“This is one of our best starts in a very long time and we have laid a good foundation and thanks to the management, technical team and players for their contribution in the club success this season and anything is possible. We could even win the league.”
Like most of the squad, Mweene learned his trade on dusty foreign fields. Training in front of soldiers with automatic weapons is no great shakes. A scouting mission to the West African Football Union tournament pre-season yielded a crop of Togolese stars – striker Morou Zakari, full back Sadate Akoriko and midfielder Dove Wome. From Nigeria, there’s top scorer David Agbagwu – just called up for their U23 Olympic squad - plus the currently injured international centre-back Soriala Gege.
While they will miss Gege in their final two games of the year, Agbagwu is bubbling with confidence. After stints with FC Bolowotan and FC Eko United in Lagos, he secured a moved to CD Athletico Baleares in the Spanish Segunda (second) division, where he recalls: “We used the ball a lot, my coach encouraged a lot of ball work at training because he had himself played for Barcelona before. The game is not as fast as the English Premier League or Italian Seria A but very much about slow build-ups with a killer finish. I enjoyed the lifestyle as well, there's a lot of good food and good weather there.”
Then came the move to Bethlehem via Ajax Cape Town, where, the 22-year-old says: “I would like to score goals for the Stars as they have shown belief in my talent. If all goes well, I want to do so well that I rise steadily until I turn out for either Manchester United or Barcelona.”
Lofty ambitions. But the dark and dreamless streets from Bethlehem to Barcelona have rarely looked shinier.