Friday, 24 October 2014

The curious tale of Orlando Pirates: champions of self-destruction and bounce-backability

The happy couple: the awkward meeting of VV and Dr Khoza
In all my travels, all my reading, all my enthusiastic football watching on five continents, I have never come across a club quite like Orlando Pirates FC.

The Buccaneers.  The Sea Robbers. The Happy People. Love and Peace. Once, Always. Before former player Kaizer Motaung came along with his Chiefs, they were the biggest and the best in South Africa. And long after that, in the post-democracy dream year 1995, they became the nation’s once and only winners of the African Champions League, reaching the final again last year.

Ah, the history. Founded in 1937 with the skull and crossbones logo (though, anachronistically, I’m told Orlando Boys Club were styled after the 1940 Errol Flynn film “The Sea Hawk”), run by modern-day Pirate Irvin Khoza, a team of trebles and sinister forces, incredible cup runs and inexplicable exchanges of both players and coaches.

I've been asked to highlight the key problems many times on the social networks. Here it is in a sentence: Dr Khoza only appoints coaches who he can control, men desperate for a another crack at the big time. Amazingly, it's worked quite well at times.

Do that make them rebellious? Reckless? It’s not as if the Soweto suburb of Orlando derived its name from a famous maverick. That particular area of the South Western Townships was named after Edwin Orlando Leake, Mayor of Johannesburg from 1925 to 1926.

I wrote a history of Soweto for my friend Vuyo Dewati a few years ago and had a look at “Mr Orlando” and his past. He wasn’t a bad fellow for a chairman of “Native Affairs”. He built two-bedroomed houses for the working class in 1932 with the intention of creating “a model township”.  Judge the result for yourself: vibrant hub or matchbox houses, you see what you choose to see when you visit their recently refurbished stadium.

There are more glamorous ways of looking at it. In Italian, Orlando means “fair land” (in English, Roland), Shakespeare named one of his “As You Like It” characters the Italian way; the city in Florida also has its buccaneers and by coincidence Hollywood even made Orlando Bloom one of their Pirates of the Caribbean.

But it's not really about the name. It’s the club and those bitter but beautiful Bucca Bucca fans of the modern post-World Cup era which must be addressed here.

Under “Dr” Khoza, the black-and-white half of Soweto is both self-destructive and bounce-backable: when they won their first treble under Dutch legend Ruud Krol in 2011 instead of celebrating a true resurgency they chose to sack the boss and draft in Julio Cesar Leal, because his brother was involved with the Brazilians running  Bafana Bafana at the time.

Incredibly, with Peruvian youth coach Augusto Palacios taking over from Leal in March, 2012, they went on to win a second successive treble the very next season, despite huge upheaval, mainly thanks to the controversial return to South Africa of record-breaking striker Benni McCarthy, who had been thrown out of Premier League club West Ham for being overweight.

Winners of the South African championship NINE times (NPSL 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, NSL 1994; PSL 2001, 2003, 2011, 2012), Palacios only lasted six months despite his triumphs, with Roger de Sa – thrown out by Wits and in a dreadful state personally – the shock replacement.

But De Sa also defied the odds despite the mysterious departure of McCarthy, who forgot to tell the chairman he was leaving. #rogerthat took the club to the African Champions League final and after leading the initial recovery from relegation he headed south to Ajax Cape Town, where he has achieved minor miracles this season with a bunch of kids.

A picture tells a thousand words: Vermecovic
Incredibly, Dr Khoza ignored all precedent again when he named De Sa’s replacement in February this year: unemployed Serbian Vladimir Vermecovic, sacked by arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs in 2012, was signed up and we waited for his work permit with some trepidation as caretaker Tinkler kept the ship afloat.

Under VV, a harsh, unforgiving coach, Pirates have continued the incredible cup exploits they began under De Sa. They have reached the final of the last FIVE knock-out competitions entered, winning the Nedbank Cup at the end of last season but losing the MTN8 at the last hurdle this term. Despite my best efforts I have NEVER heard of a club ANYWHERE reaching FIVE successive cup finals.

Despite huge criticism, VV took the side to second in the PSL before last week’s unfortunate defeat against Clive Barker’s Mpumalanga Black Aces. After his hard-fought 2-1 win, the delightful Barker, a sprightly 70, could be heard post-match saying to VV: "You're still a young man. You'll go all the way." Vlad appeared far more concerned about going away altogether.

Anybody would think the Buccaneers were heading for the relegation trap-door the way the fans reacted. #VVout was trending on twitter. His stubborn failure to select Kermit Erasmus and Lehlohonolo Majoro together in his starting line-up has proved hugely unpopular. Even the unbeatable Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa in goal took more flak than President Zuma threatening to build a second homestead.

Incredible stuff. Your side are SECOND in the league. They’ve reached FIVE consecutive cup finals. And the entire side were lambasted over a single result. Nobody escape the wave of ire from the Bucca Bucca fans. There were even threats to lynch VV and a constant stream of tweets purporting to herald his return to Belgrade.

But it’s not suprising. A quick review of Dr Khoza’s decisions explain all. Krol, Leal, Palacios, De Sa, caretaker Eric Tinkler and VV were all strange decisions. Huge risks. And we all know about the “sinister” selection process with Floyd Mbele and Screamer Tshabalala pulling the strings behind the scenes while the coach pulls his hair out.

Good youngsters leave, uncontracted veterans stay; Majoro’s arrival, having signed for SuperSport United, went uninvestigated while Tlou Segolela is scoring for the reserves despite a big salary, Lennox Bacela has been forgotten and the back-four failures are now compounded by Rooi Mahamutsa’s apparent fall from grace.

Anybody remember how Andile Jali left for Belgium? When the club put out a message saying he’d gone AWOL? Like I said, I’ve never known a club like Orlando Pirates.

The problem is, Pirates are run by the same man who runs the PSL and – until Danny Jordaan’s election as President – the South African Football Association. There is a perception Pirates can do as they like. Repeated fan problems are brushed under the carpet. Dr Khoza, who apparently now has a blood link to Bobby Motaung at Chiefs (as well as President Zuma), simply keeps the big sponsors backing the Soweto giants.

Khoza knows he can appoint who he wants to run the club, all will be fine. His son Nkosana, destined to take over a club that changed hands under strange circumstances in the early 1990s; is waiting in the wings as his father’s business empire grows in to other sectors and far-flung northern nations.

Let VV do as he wishes. If the noise gets too loud, he’ll find another coach. Dr Khoza is a gambler, a big wheel. Vodacom, Carling and ABSA aren’t really interested in who wins what, only the grand Soweto giants count.

As one of their former coaches (we dare not name him) told me: “Every coach Pirates appoint would resign after a month if it wasn’t for the fact the club is run by Dr Khoza. Orlando Pirates is the hottest hot seat you’ll ever sit in.”

It won’t change. Any critique of Dr Khoza is met with fury and even death threats on the social networks. Pirates might surge to the championship or slip down in to the doldrums under VV. It’s hard to tell given his unforgiving, tactically cautious approach which has seen the excellent Oupa Manyisa reduced to a shadow of his foraging self.

Either way, Orlando Pirates will be fine. The money will come pouring in. Whether the fans like it or not. They haven’t mattered for quite a while. And they haven't turned up in numbers for a some time.

A shorter version of this story will appear as my Neal and Pray column in

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