Telkom Knockout: Siwelele on song for a samba duel
Whoever wins the Telkom Knockout final, the power balance of South African football will become a shade healthier when the final whistle sounds.
In recent years the trophy cabinets of the finalists, Bloemfontein Celtic and Mamelodi Sundowns, have become archaeology museums. It was way back in 2005 when the Free Staters last lifted a shiny pot – the old SAA Super 8. Not since 2008's Nedbank Cup have Mamelodi Sundowns done likewise.
So both sides desperately need to display some hideous modern sculptures – and the new Telkom Knockout trophy, which resembles the head of a deranged robotic turtle, fits the bill perfectly.
In a season when increasingly pathetic Premier Soccer League crowds have been a very sore point, these two distinguished teams are the league's best hope for building big attendances beyond the duopoly of the Soweto giants. If they finally start living up to their potent history, their stands will start to sing again.
Down at Moses Mabhida Stadium, Celtic will enjoy the support of most neutrals, being the financial underdogs blessed with a fan base that is immensely popular and respected across the country. "Siwelele" understand the art of supporting a team – loyally, melodically and maturely – better than any other diski tribe in the land.
But their famous patience has been tested in recent years by the regime of boss Jimmy Augousti, a volatile and often divisive character who has more or less run Celtic as a selling club. Augousti seems unable or unwilling to make significant net expenditure in the transfer market – and to be fair this is standard practice for most PSL sides.
But Celtic's rich history and hefty brand value cries out for a lavish backer who could spend big enough to put them on a level footing with the Gauteng giants.
Where's an oligarch when you need one? Surely Snoop Lion (nee Dogg) could be persuaded to forego a piece of Glasgow's Celtic for a piece of their Bloem cousins?
For his part, Celtic coach Clinton Larsen denies his side is undercapitalised. "We are ... trying to find the balance between buying and selling," he said recently. "Others are selling players and not reinvesting. When we sold Eric Mathoho to Chiefs, we were able to fund four good players from that sale: Dominic Isaacs, John Arwuah, Siyabonga Nontshinga and Kurt Lentjies."
And, to be fair, Larsen has proved an adept squad-builder, crafting a resilient line-up from an unfashionable collection of talent. This term he has unearthed an impressive playmaker in Ruzaigh Gamildien (23) – signed from Cape side Milano United – who has struck up a nifty rapport with strikers Lennox Bacela and Lerato Manzini.
It is telling that Augousti's only significant off-season investment has yielded an impressive return. Celtic paid around R3-million to Mochudi Centre Chiefs for the big Batswana striker Joel Mogorosi – and he has proved a spectacular gamebreaker for Celtic in this cup campaign, contributing two snazzy late goals.
First came an almost Zlatanist overhead ripper against Orlando Pirates, and then one of the best long-range headers you're ever likely to see against Free State Stars in the semifinal. You get what you pay for.
Significant net investment
Elsewhere, John Arwuah has become a superbly combative force at the base of midfield, and Thabo Nthethe has marshalled his defence with aplomb, pulling off one of the cover tackles of the season in the final seconds of the semifinal.
Sundowns will be a much tougher obstacle than Free State Stars, as they demonstrated by defeating Celtic at the Seisa Ramabodu Stadium in a recent league fixture to climb off the foot of the PSL log. Has Johan Neeskens turned the corner and saved his job until the end of the season? Not unless he triumphs tomorrow. Downs are looking perkier of late, but they were fortunate to hold out against SuperSport in their semifinal.
And even if the Brazilians do prevail in Durban, Neeskens will remain hugely indebted to Patrice Motsepe. The Downs boss has risked his credibility by persisting with the dour Dutchman through a long spring of abysmal form. That was a wise move: the failures of recent years have had much to do with coaching turnover.
But there is much more at stake than one trophy, or the fate of Neeskens. The entire Downs strategy – one of sustained, significant net investment in players – is at risk. Motsepe's largesse is easily decried as wasteful, but it has also improved the general standard of the league by provoking a wave of bold spending from Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs, SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits.
But if the biggest investors of all continue to fail, then the value of investment per se will be challenged, and that cannot be good news.
When a silly rumour of a David Beckham move to Kaizer Chiefs flew around this month, Chiefs general manager Bobby Motaung was highly amused and chuffed that his club had been (falsely) linked to a superstar. But our big clubs should be aggressively pursuing other (cheaper) big names, instead of sitting back and getting cheap thrills from tabloid fibs.
Why aren't the Gauteng giants pursuing thirtysomething African greats? Where is the ambition? Are we really happy to eat the dust of the Australian league? Was the World Cup all for nothing?