Precious victory for Swallows
Andrew Muchineripi Soccer
The team and reserves walked on to the pitch holding hands Brazil-style, formed a circle, bowed heads and prayed, then kicked footballs into the sparse George Goch Stadium crowd.
On the warm, partially cloudy weekend afternoon the future of Moroka Swallows Football Club was at stake when they tackled Dynamos from the Northern Province town of Thohoyandou in Castle Premiership fixture No 562.
Swallows and Dynamos entered the game with 25 points each, five more than bottom club Vaal Professionals, and with only six rounds of the national championship left, victory was a precious goal.
The setting was dismal with barely 300 people at a ramshackle ground devoid of character just off the M1 highway about 10 minutes drive from the centre of Johannesburg.
Swallows were once a great club with stars too numerous to mention. The club pulled in massive crowds, rivalling those of fierce rivals Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
This season, George Goch has proved adequate even for the visits of Chiefs and Pirates - a sad reflection of the rapidly dwindling pulling power of the team once labelled the Beautiful Birds.
Swallows are coached by Austrian-born Walter Rautmann, a happy-go-lucky fiftysomething who has been hired and fired by the club several times, yet always comes back for more.
He recalls the 1970s, dark days of racial divide, when he arrived in the country and immediately earned the respect of black football fans, who christened him “Soweto” after the cradle of the liberation struggle.
Rautmann believes that if Swallows fill one of the two relegation places, they may be lost for ever. While Premiership clubs receive monthly grants exceeding R100 000, MTN First Division collect a meagre R5 000.
Swallows’ problem throughout the 1998/99 season has been a sterile attack that has produced just six goals in 14 home matches (two in one, one in four and nine blanks).
For a man who loves recalling the scoring exploits of German legend Gerd Muller and Liverpool goal- machine Ian Rush, it is not a pretty sight watching Swallows repeatedly miss when it appears more difficult than scoring.
“I have quantity, but no quality,” he laments.
“Scoring is done with the head, not the feet. The best strikers are highly intelligent. They know where to be and when to be there.”
Rautmann must have feared another barren afternoon when physically-frail Mark McVeigh shot straight at goalkeeper Avhapfani Themeli with just five minutes gone.
But a brave decision to play with three strikers instead of the customary two paid off four minutes before half-time when Jakhonia Cibi flicked on a long throw-in from Gavin Lane and a looping Sisa Nombe header found the net.
Psychologically, the goal could not have arrived at a more opportune moment as Swallows left the field at the interval with something tangible to show for considerable sweat.
Rautmann tightened his forces for the second half, withdrawing Nombe for midfielder Sibusiso Mazibuko without seriously diluting his attacking strength and the game ceased as a contest with 57 minutes gone.
Pencil-thin Patrick Ningiza crossed from the left and William Lerefolo achieved the rare feat for a Bird of scoring twice within four matches via a close-range header.
For a team on the edge of the abyss, Dynamos showed remarkably little spirit and even three substitutions by Malawian coach Marthias Mwenda within eight minutes failed to wrest the initiative from Swallows.
Mwenda does not accept that defeat means relegation, but with four of his five matches away from Thohoyandou, he will find it hard convincing all but the most faithful Dynamos’ followers that the team can dodge the drop.
Rautmann says two more victories from their remaining home fixtures against Hellenic and Bush Bucks during May and Premiership survival is guaranteed for the Birds.
But is that always to be the lot of Moroka Swallows FC? Surely their ambitions must be a little loftier. Many contend that a consistently successful club would win back long-lost followers.
Whether the heights can be reached under long-serving chair David “Pine” Chabeli is doubtful. A master at personal survival, his critics claim he lacks the vision to lift the club above petty in-fighting on to a higher plateau.