Sport

Birds still fly in the PSL

Mark Gleeson

New signings from the Eastern Bloc may give Swallows coach Zeca Marques the edge he seeks at the start of the Premier Soccer League season.

Faithful Moroka Swallows fans. (Steve Haag, Gallo)

The meeting between Moroka Swallows and Orlando Pirates at the start of the new league season this Saturday continues the longest rivalry of any two South African professional clubs – but its days of providing a fierce derby have long since disappeared.

Swallows do not now muster more than a thousand-odd supporters and live in the shadow of both Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, when once they more than matched the achievements of their neighbours in the heyday of Soweto football.

But there is at least an air of familiarity about them, plus a battling spirit that has kept them afloat even in times of great adversity.

No more so than the 2010-11 season when they had just two points at the halfway stage of the season, and yet somehow they miraculously managed to avoid relegation.The next season they bounced back with such ferocity they were runners-up in the league.

It is probably fair to say inconsistency is the one consistent thing with the Birds. You are never quite sure what you are going to get from them season by season.

They are a founder member of the old National Professional Soccer League, which marked the start of black professional soccer in 1971, but have never won a championship. Their only league title came during the brief existence of the South African Soccer League, before the apartheid government squeezed it out of existence in the mid-1960s.

Challenge for league honours
This year there will be few believing that Swallows will challenge for league honours, as they did under Gordon Igesund three seasons ago.

But exactly what sort of impact they will make might be a lot clearer after the opening league clash with Pirates at Orlando Stadium.

Zeca Marques returns for a third season in charge, having struggled in the last campaign and finished 13th. The year before, they narrowly missed out on a top eight place.

But this year he looks to have more reinforcements than before and maybe a genuine shot at proving spoilers, if not top six material.

The quality of three new signings from the former Yugoslavia still has to be assessed. Defender Boris Savic is from Bosnia and Herzegovina and a former junior with Red Star Belgrade, Serbian goalkeeper Obren Cuckovic stands 1.91m tall and midfielder Vladimir Mandic is a former junior international for Serbia.

Lucky Baloyi and Philani Cele are on loan from Chiefs and Kenyan international Kevin Omondi has also been added to the mix. The 32-year-old fullback Tsietsi Mahoa joins on a free transfer from Bloemfontein Celtic to keep the average age above 26.

Tough going
Key players such as Siyabonga Nomvete (36) and Lefa Tsutsulupa (34) will probably find the going tougher and might not be able to contribute as much as in the past, as Father Time begins to catch up with them. That means more pressure on talismanic Lerato Chabangu to deliver.

Pirates gave a slick demonstration of their potential in the MTN8 at the same venue last Saturday. They should have beaten SuperSport United by more but the perennial problem of finishing in front of goals has already returned.

Coach Vladimir Vermezovic made it clear he was thanking the football gods for deliverance after the 2-1 quarterfinal win. “Normally when you squander that many chances, by rights you should lose,” he said.

Saturday night’s clash comes in the middle of a busy weekend in which all 16 clubs make their bow in the league, starting with Friday night’s clash between champions Mamelodi Sundowns and Maritzburg United at Loftus Versfeld.

All the clubs return to action again next Tuesday and Wednesday for the second round of league matches.

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