Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Out of Africa: the only way is UP for the Kaizer Chiefs African dream. Or is it OUT?

Unsavoury scenes: Chiefs surround referee Shikongo at Soccer City

PERHAPS the most telling quote on a painful Saturday night for South African football was THIS from Stuart Baxter: "My biggest regret is that, when the world sees officiating like they tonight, they laugh at Africa.”

He’s right. The 60-year-old from Wolverhampton has had a wide and varied career, ranging from Scotland to Scandinavia, Australia to Spain. And he’s rarely seen anything like he saw at Soccer City, where Kaizer Chiefs fell one goal short of reversing their 3-0 defeat against AS Vita in Kinshasa the week before.

And then of course we had Chiefs talking about withdrawing from CAF completely amid fears of a three-match ban from future African competition. Plus THIS quote (among others on Robert Marawa's MetroFM football show) from General Manager Bobby Motaung last night: "If you win against African teams away, you might be killed or not leave the Stadium."

To be honest, it's bad, but not that bad. But you get the drift of what Bobby is trying to say. Still, Chiefs chose to join the other seven Champions League rejects for this morning's April Fool's CAF Confederations Cup draw and will (presumably) play Ivory Coast's ASEC Mimosa in the play-off round for the group stages later this foolish month.

ASEC Mimosa were famously dispatched by Orlando Pirates on their run to African Champions in 1996, but they won the African Champions League in 1998 and have won the Ivorian championship 24 times, the last in 2010.

Had Chiefs pulled out - as they threatened to do for a few difficult hours on Monday - South African football would have been back in the doldrums after Orlando Pirates' epic journey to last season's final. But you can understand the thinking in the Motaung family corridors. As it is, they may well field a reserve team for the tie nobody is sure they really want to win.

So what went wrong with the Chiefs African dream? We can discuss the lack of AmaKhosi fans at the stadium on Saturday, the lack of atmosphere compared to their trip north the week before, the injuries to goalkeepers Itumeleng Khune and Reyaad Pieterse and the ankle problem picked up by striker Knowledge Musona.

But in essence, this was about the Namibian referee. Though Knowledge got the 10th-minute goal Chiefs so urgently required, Rainhola Shikongo saw fit to deny the home side an even bigger advantage when he ruled out Kingston Nkatha’s 4th minute goal with a dubious offsides decision.

Shikongo went on to deny two clear penalties – one an obvious handball, the other a shove in the box on Matthew Rusike – and despite a half-time lecture on time-wasting from AmaKhosi assistant boss Doc Khumalo, the referee consistently refused to rush goalkeeper Nguemba Lomboto who broke the six-second rule by handling the ball for 12 seconds or more at times.

Then there was the issue of injury time. With Morgan Gould finally producing the second goal in the dying minutes, Baxter was promised seven minutes of injury time. He said: “We were told seven minutes of optional time, then they said three. And when it got tight at the end, the referee only gave us 90 seconds.

“It’s hard enough playing in the African Champions League, but playing with an official like that makes it very difficult indeed. We were a better side than them, we know that.

“But what can I do? I have to say congratulations to AS Vita, good luck to them, I hope they do well in the Group Stages.”

Unlike Baxter, the Chiefs players chose to take out their frustrations on referee Shikongo, berating him verbally at the final whistle and coming close to a shoving match as officials rushed to intervene. A pitch invader or three added to the mayhem and Baxter groaned: “Our fans are behaving recklessly at the moment. But you can understand their frustration. It is frustrating when you see officiating like we’ve seen tonight.   

"The keeper was an embarrassment. Sometimes he took 15-16 seconds on the ball, it just got worse and worse.

“We get the second goal, hope the ref is counting the seconds the keeper took, but three minutes was a smack in the face. And we didn’t even get that.”

There is no question CAF competitions have a reputation for poor refereeing and dodgy away trips. Throughout the continent season-long unbeaten home records occur with a worrying frequency.

We had clues last season of course. Orlando Pirates’ problems at another DRC club TP Mazembe last season – a trip which included a television black-out, journalist detentions, confiscated sim cards, two penalties and an unjust red card – should have resulted in a lengthy ban for the Lubumbashi club. It didn’t. TP Mazembe were fined and went on to reach the final of the Confederations Cup with barely a blush of embarrassment.

For Baxter, the defence of AmaKhosi’s PSL crown now becomes the priority, along with a Nedbank Cup quarter-final against SuperSport United. You have to wonder how hard they will work to stay in the CAF Confederations Cup after all this.

The good news? Pieterse, who banged his head against a post making a save on Saturday, should be fit for tonight’s clash with rock-bottom Golden Arrows, and Khune should return for next weekend’s top-of-the-table clash against Mamelodi Sundowns.

The bad news? I understand Bernard Parker has been playing for some weeks with a heavily strapped ankle. Musona also has an ankle problem, picked up in the first half on Saturday.

With Sundowns, now level on points at the top of the PSL, to come on Saturday, Chiefs could find their season collapsing around them before the trip to the Mimosas. Baxter knows the mantra though: “Now we have to pick ourselves up and carry on with our season. We have to take this defeat on the nose.”

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