Sunday, 29 May 2016

KING OF THE JUNGLE: Pitso Mosimane's champions must make the most of their THIRD chance in Africa

Giant leap for Sundowns: Pitso Mosimane is back in Africa
“Everyone says it’s difficult for South African teams in African competitions, but the referees were cheating – you saw that. How can we play?
“In CAF competitions, for South Africans, it’s very difficult, you saw them cheating.
“I thought what happened to us in South Africa against AS Vita was bad, but this was unbelievable! We had people from Medeama coming to our bench and fighting us, and we had to fight back. It’s unbelievable.
“The new Fifa president has a lot of work to do in CAF. Africa is behind. It’s a jungle.”

Those were the words of Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane after his side slipped out of the CAF Confederations Cup - without live television coverage - against SC Medeama in Ghana on May 18.

Then came last week’s bombshell: AS Vita, the club who knocked Masandawana out of the Champions League a month before, had been expelled from the tournament after fielding an ineligible player.

In the space of an hour, Sundowns - having just set a record of 71 points in a 30-game PSL season - had broken another record. They became the only team in the history of African football to reach the group stages of the African Champions League after getting knocked out of BOTH continental competitions.

Mosimane’s surprise was palpable. Drawn in a tough group with Nigeria’s Enyimba, Orlando Pirates’ nemesis ES Setif from Algeria and our old friends Zamalek from Egypt, Sundowns face massive changes to their planned off-season with six gruelling clashes between June 17 and August 23.

Pitso said: “As you can imagine, we already have players who have booked their trips home and holidays.

“Of course it's exciting to be back in the Champions League. That’s the big one, and we want to be in that space. It wasn't the way we intended, but we'll take it.

“In South Africa we have the quality to play in continental competitions against other top sides. We have to take what we learnt from our matches.

"We know it's win at all costs in Africa, but Sundowns will maintain their integrity and we hope represent the country well.”

Compare those quotes with his rant at the start of the story. Pitso is going back to the jungle… with or without television coverage or much visible enthusiasm from their fans.

Bizarrely, despite their earlier failed efforts, Sundowns have enough depth to confound and qualify for the semi-finals of the African Champions League, to restore some of South Africa’s battered pride.

Keagan Dolly’s Rio Olympic preparations may have to take a back seat, but Sundowns can become Kings of the Jungle. 

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Soweto's season of discontent: Chiefs, Swallows and Cosmos slump while Pirates fly the final flag

BETTER DAYS: me with coach Zeca Marques in 2013
when Moroka Swallows won the MTN8 trophy
SOWETO, the beating heart of South African football, has never had it so bad. Ask Moroka Swallows fans after the once-mighty Dube Birds plunged in to the third division over the weekend.

Right now, South Africa's most famous suburb are pinning their hopes fervently to the coat-tails of Orlando Pirates.

The SOuth WEstern TOwnship, which emerged in 1904 as an evacuation camp at Klipspruit municipal sewage farm, was always going to be the centre of excellence. Teeming with 904,000 potential football fans - the working classes are footballers, the posh tend towards rugby - the modern game has been dominated by Soweto’s finest for decades.

All over the world, from Rio to Manchester, Jozi to Lagos, it’s the lads from the streets who emerge at the top of the beautiful game, shaking the dust from their boots to earn millions with their feet. Soweto was no different. The great players, the great clubs.

But not this season.

Kaizer Chiefs, who won the PSL with a record 69 points last season, could see that mark broken by new champions Mamelodi Sundowns, who would claim 71 points if they win their final game against Platinum Stars on Saturday.

Chiefs on the other hand need a season-closing win over in-form Chippa United to reach third - they could even slip as low as 5th without it. The title was gone weeks ago, with barely a sigh.

Steve Komphela’s side have drawn 11 this season and offer defensive midfielder Willard Katsande as their top scorer with six goals. They have won ONCE since downing SuperSport United on February 20 two months ago, a run of 12 games featuring a sole (fortunate) 2-1 triumph over lowly AmaTuks.

But while #komphelaout has featured prominently on the social networks, so too has #tinklerout as rivals Orlando Pirates have struggled to emerge from the lower reaches of the PSL after their exhausting journey to the CAF Confederations Cup final.

Tinkler enjoyed a brief recovery - eight wins punctuated by one defeat - and he will finish in the Top Eight if the Buccaneers beat SuperSport United in their final clash on Saturday.

But going in to Saturday afternoon’s soggy Nedbank Cup semi-final against Free State Stars on Saturday, Pirates had slumped once more. They needed a fantastic own goal and a late rally to see off Ea Lla Koto 4-2 and surge in to the final at the Peter Mokaba Stadium on May 28.

While Komphela talks about “playing football on Mars”, Tinkler accepts “We have been disappointing”. Together the Soweto Giants could end trophyless and out of the top three for the first time since 2008. Already Pirates are assured of their worst league finish in the PSL era.

And what about the old giants, Moroka Swallows? We all know the story there. Struggling with the R15m debt left by former chairman Leon Prins, a buyer cannot be found. PSL relegation has been followed by a torrid NFD season of non-payment and coaching merry-go-rounds.

Now headed for the ABC Motsepe League after an unprecedented relegation double, the less said about the Dube Birds the better, though I would ask this: how can the PSL executive award themselves R65m in bonuses when a club like Swallows are struggling?

And then we come to Soweto’s fourth club. Coached by Jomo and owned by Mr Sono. They haven’t won anything since the famous ex-footballer decided to take on all available roles at the club.

Never far from relegation, Jomo Cosmos face a possible points deduction over an unregistered player this week and a final battle against Maritzburg United to stay up on Saturday.

A lost title for Chiefs, a worst ever finish for Pirates, bottom of the NFD for Swallows, possible relegation for Cosmos. It’s not been a great year for Soweto on the football field.

Pirates alone are clinging to the hope of silverware. But to do that they’ll have to beat Stuart Baxter, the SuperSport United coach who took Chiefs to their greatest heights in recent years.

His side’s wet, wet, wet 2-0 win over NFD upstarts Baroka on Saturday was pretty emphatic. At least it ended the debate about how the Nedbank Cup final could be played in Baroka’s hometown Polokwane.

But Tinkler won’t worry about any of that. For him, it’s win or bust. It’s Pirates v SuperSport in BOTH the last game of the NFD and the Nedbank Cup final.

No doubting who holds the popular vote. Pirates can save the season for Soweto. But Baxter won’t mind that.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

A TALE OF TWO CHAMPIONS: Leicester and Mamelodi both won 3-1. But the similarities end there.

WE SHALL NOT SLEEP: Andrea Bocelli at Leicester's King Power Stadium

Ah, the Saturday of Champions. On consecutive channels, courtesy of SuperSport television. We saw the champions of England and South Africa, Leicester City and Mamelodi Sundowns, both surge to convincing 3-1 wins just days after being crowned champions of their respective nations. But apart from the scoreline the two events had little in common.

Those football fans fortunate enough to afford DSTV’s mushrooming monthly subscription surely won’t have missed the yawning chasm between two title-winners on the Channel of Champions.

On channel 203 we had the glory of Leicester City. Confirmed as champions earlier in the week, the Year of the Fox went in to full swing at about 4pm. After days of massive celebrations in pubs and gathering places around the midlands town, their clash with Everton was pure joy from start to finish.

With tickets for their crowning glory being touted for R20,000, the King Power stadium was packed to the rafters with 32,524 fans carrying co-ordinated blue-and-white flags.

Global tears were shed when Italian classical tenor Andrea Bocelli, a man who lost his sight in a footballing accident, fulfilled his promise to coach and compatriot Claudio Ranieri and serenaded the football-speaking world with Nessun Dorma (Never Sleep).

Nobody slept. Top scorer Jamie Vardy scored early on, then smashed home one penalty and sent a second over the bar, whistling towards Uranus. The town of Leicester, thrust in to the spotlight, didn’t give a damn. They’re in the Champions League next year.

It’s been that kind of week. Owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha didn’t just buy a R700 000 Mercedes for every player, he also provided free beers and fresh pizza for every fan.

Exactly 8 328 miles and one channel away at the Lucas Masterpieces Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville near Pretoria, it was free tears and frozen Pitso for a paltry crowd without flags or razzmatazz on DSTV 204 at 5pm.

Up against the Ghanaians Medium SC, a dour 80 minutes was spent trailing by an away goal before top scorer Leonardo Castro, player of the season Kharma Billiat and sub Cuthbert Malajila banged home three in 7 minutes to unearth a 3-1 first leg triumph in the CAF Confederations Cup.

But even after that late landslide, it was impossible to miss the stark contrast between the two events which kicked-off within half-an-hour of each other. Both Leicester and Pretoria are cities more famous for their rugby teams than their football clubs.

With the Tigers and the Bulls over-shadowed, Leicester and Sundowns made history this week. The Foxes won their first title in 132 years. Mamelodi celebrated their record seventh PSL title.

But while Leicester are at the centre of their community, the old HM Pitje Stadium in Mamelodi remains unused, caught in the middle of a political quagmire between the council and billionaire owner Patrice Motsepe.

No fans, no razzmatazz: Mamelodi Sundowns
With a paltry crowd less than 10 percent of the gathering at Leicester, there was simply no razzmatazz - not even Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula - to provide South African football with a touch of joy.

No flags, no champagne, no fireworks. Nothing.

Pitso Mosimane tried to lift the mood of course. His post-match summary of Sundowns late rally was hilarious. Looking to find out just how he managed to lift Masandawana after a dreadful first half, South Africa’s most successful homegrown African coach told us:

“It was very naughty. But my players are still celebrating, they are only human. At half-time, I didn’t say a word. I promise you. I sat in my corner and drank coffee.”

And really, that sums up our Saturday of champions. Leicester went out and told the world they were champions with free beer. Mamelodi sat in their corner and had a cuppa. It’s got to tell you something about the state of our football.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

CHAMPIONS! Hail Pitso, six months after the Sundowns fans wanted him out

RUNNING THE RISK: Faty Papy in hospital last December
We could talk about the racism of Matthew Theunissen today. Just been listening to the fool on the radio. But where will that get us?

Let's talk about Wits University's professional football team instead. A club long divorced from the Clever Boys it once represented, a club with a tiny following, punching above its weight.

On Saturday, they might have had two penalties against Chippa United in a 1-1 draw which essentially ended their championship dreams.

And as coach Gavin Hunt said afterwards they had chances “from one yard, my daughter could have stuck one away” as he neatly side-stepped the issue of his top scorer James Keene remaining benched throughout the 90 minutes.

Or perhaps we could talk about their 25-year-old Burundian Faty Papy collapsing again during Saturday’s game. When the same thing happened on December 8 last year, he was rushed to hospital and emerged saying: “I’m fine, the doctors have told me not to speak to the media.”

But nobody will talk, even the chatty Gavin Hunt won’t pick up the phone. And let’s be honest, nobody cares about Wits, who play at a ground with a capacity of 5000 and one of the biggest budgets in South African football thanks to Bidvest.

The point is, Wits' failure to put the pressure on Mamelodi Sundowns has been a major let down this season, as the Soweto giants have failed to make anything approaching a title challenge.

Pitso Mosimane’s men could even break the record 69-point haul Kaizer Chiefs mustered last season. If they win their last three games - one of them against Wits on May 11 - they will set a new mark of 71 points.

Even a defeat against Hunt’s men - who need to be Aces tonight - is unlikely to dent Sundowns title challenge, which should be all wrapped up if they beat lowly AmaTuks tomorrow night.

That would take Masandawana and their billionaire owner Patrice Motsepe to SEVEN titles since the PSL was formed in 1996 - not bad given the club were repossessed by Standard Bank from Zola Mahobe in 1988.

That makes Sundowns by some distance the dominant force of the PSL over the past 20 years, a fact not lost on KaboYellow supporters.

What is lost is this: in September last year, Sundowns fans were trying to remove Mosimane from his position as head coach after defeats against Mpumalanga Black Aces and Golden Arrows.

REMEMBER WHEN: Pitso Mosimane gets a police escort
And before that, in April 2013, angry fans forced him to rely on a police escort to emerge safely from Sundowns’ game against Bloemfontein Celtic at Pilditch Stadium.

But since he took over from the Dutchman Johan Neeskens in December 2012 and finished 10th, Mosimane in his three full seasons has finished FIRST, SECOND and this season FIRST.

And even as he achieved the sensational run, Pitso has drastically cut Sundowns infamous spending, sorted out the behind-the-scenes problems and created a cohesive unit at Chloorkop.

So when Pitso makes us laugh with his “eating grass” post-match interviews, when he sheds tears after defeat, stop and think a moment. He’s the best local coach around, Bafana Bafana should never have sacked him, he works hard and created a new CBD in Tshwane.

But then tomorrow night all that might be forgotten. The job will be done. Pitso will be King. Until they lose a couple of games and the vultures begin to hover.