|Playing for keeps: Sunday World back page|
SO Tuesday is D-Day. The final bloody assault in a two-month campaign to bridge the gap between Itumeleng Khune and Kaizer Chiefs.
We have had weeks of one-sided artillery from AmaKhosi "football manager" Bobby Motaung against Khune, Mandla Masango and Tefu Mashamaite since the infamous press conference when the rebel trio were told to leave on June 2.
In a series of convenient leaks to the Sunday papers, Bobby told us how the three were demanding ridiculous amounts to sign new contracts while simultaneously forcing out his title-winning coach Stuart Baxter.
I have consistently stuck with the players in this debate. I believe the figures quoted in the papers were distorted, that Khune was NOT the highest paid player in the PSL and that both Masango and Mashamaite were asking for reasonable increases given the circumstances.
My argument: that Kaizer Chiefs have won R54m in prize money over the past three seasons (more than covering the cost of three new contracts) and that they bring in millions more from sponsors Vodacom, Carling and Hollard. Bobby knew he could afford the pay rises but steadfastly refused to offer his title-winning stalwarts an extra penny.
Remember, these are not just journeymen hoping for a contract. Masango was Kaizer Chiefs top scorer last season, his seven goals amounting to more than any of the many AmaKhosi strikers in a record-breaking season which saw Stuart Baxter’s men win the PSL with a record 69 points.
Khune, though hampered by injury and club politics last term, remains South Africa’s No1 goalkeeper and captained South Africa in their last two outings against Mauritius.
Yet here they are, cap in hand, begging for a return to the club that discarded them within days of the title celebrations last season.
And standing in the shadows as they approach Bobby Motaung and his admin manager Abdullah Mayet today is Tefu Mashamaite, the man who won every award on offer last season for his stirring exploits at centre-back for Baxter’s miserly Chiefs.
On May 20, Mashamaite added the Chiefs player of the season award to his PSL silverware. Within a week he was told he would not be getting the new contract he felt he deserved.
The big mistake? All three "rebels" believed the South African soccer market was as it has always been all over the world: eager to pay stars millions while under-paying the up-and-coming hopefuls.
Khune’s agent Dan Lichman, who has now parted company with British agency Triple S, set the trend. He assumed, from 5000 miles away, that Khune could cash in on his reputation and pick up a handy pay-rise after the title triumph. When you look at the ridiculous contracts and transfer fees paid in Europe, it was an understandable error. But unforgivable.
Sadly, with Mamelodi Sundowns now more cautious about splashing owner Patrice Motsepe’s millions, the Chiefs trio miscalculated. Masandawana would no longer come to the rescue in the event of an impasse. And other sponsor-rich clubs like SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits, would not have to challenge Pitso Mosimane's eagle eye.
Bobby Motaung, with his finger on the footballing pulse, knew exactly how the land lay. The bubble had burst. The man who might have objected had gone to Turkey. Bobby knew Baxter would not stay if he wasn’t allowed a say in rejuvenating the squad after two championships in three seasons. Khune, Masango and Mashamaite were defenceless. His play-things.
Right from the start, I spent hours on the phone with a distraught Khune. When newspapers began trumpeting his outrageous demands, Itumeleng denied he wanted something close to R8m a year with some gusto. Even this week, there was talk of R7.8m a year. Khune insists that is way higher than anything he demanded. Even Benni McCarthy and Knowledge Musona only commanded R6m.
Khune told me of dressing room arguments after a rare defeat, the disappearance of the R10000 Chiefs win bonus last Christmas and how he was mysteriously dropped from the team time and again as his contract negotiations loomed.
I cannot disclose everything he told me, especially if a reconciliation with Chiefs remains on the cards, but it was blood-curdling stuff. Footballers have a short career. But in South Africa, where some PSL players earn R5000 a month, even the big names find themselves struggling with debt and broken promises.
What I can say is this. Life at Chiefs was not all plain sailing last year. “The technical team would find any reason to leave me out of the team because my contract was coming to an end,” Khune told me, “I didn’t want to double my money to stay, I just wanted more from my personal endorsements and a pay rise.”
But the battle had already been lost. Bobby knew he didn’t need to keep up with a booming market to force Khune and his colleagues on to the contractual canvas. With Sundowns refusing to splash big cash, the rebel trio had no choice. A possible move to Orlando Pirates was vetoed, the Chippa United offer was a joke, Lichman could find no overseas club to step in other than the usual whispers from Belgium.
Mashamaite tried and failed at New York City. Masango got caught in the Mpumalanga Black Aces “franchise sale” saga. Khune trained alone after leaving the Bafana camp. The AmaKhosi turned against their heroes in a matter of weeks. They were taken in by a second press conference which targeted a host of journeymen masquerading as exciting new signings.
The rebel trio remained out in the cold. Repeated attempts to re-negotiate were denied. First Bobby said he was going on holiday. He said there was nothing more to discuss. Then, just last week, Motaung suggested dismissively: “Itu and Mandla must go to church for perspective. They are trying to play hardball. This club has been there for them for years. We don't need them.”
I pointed out several times on twitter how much Bobby was enjoying the discomfort. Just as he had when he ousted Jimmy Tau, a big character who threatened his hegemony.
When Ugandan Sula Matovu was signed this month on a "free transfer" which cost R3m in signing on fees and agent kick-backs, the AmaKhosi fans refused to make the connection between an honest request for a better contract and what is really happening at their club. Bobby, who boasts about not needing a CV and having serious charges against him mysteriously dropped in Mpumalanga, just laughs and carries on.
Finally, last Friday, Khune turned up without an agent. According to Chiefs sources “he poured his heart out to Bobby” while Masango arrived with his lawyer for a similarly humbling chat.
The upshot? Bobby says: “A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday (today) to give them a proper hearing. ”
But with the new season looming, Khune, Masango and Mashamaite are getting desperate. There are lifestyles to maintain, debts to service. But in the Sunday Times, Sports Editor BBK quotes Bobby saying: "It is going to be a bit of a process. There is no pressure on our side. It is not cast in stone these talks will result in reconciliation."
Motaung talks of "respect and protocol" and says he must ensure t"he situation does not occur again with any other player". Effectively, he's saying nobody should ask for a pay rise. Nobody should dare to challenge his right to a lavish lifestyle while his players sweat blood on the field.
Sadly, Bobby's won. Khune and Masango - perhaps even Mashamaite too - will have to accept a pay cut to continue playing for the AmaKhosi. We'll see how Chiefs do on the field next season. But from where I'm sitting, football is the loser.