PSL season: A good start is vital

The Premier Soccer League (PSL) season, which gets into full swing this weekend, will be a gruelling one — particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

Each of the 16 top division clubs must complete 20 league games and two domestic knockout cup competitions by December 22.

The reasons for the fixture pressure are World Cup qualifiers, no league programme during January and February because of the African Cup of Nations in Egypt, and an early end to the season to give international players a break before the World Cup in Germany next June.

PSL CEO Trevor Phillips says: “We are embarking on what is an extremely tough season. Every club will have to get used to playing three times a week.”

Although all 16 sides start the season with hopes of glory, realistically most will be pretenders to the league title.
The PSL crown has proved to be an elusive prize, with only five clubs (Manning Rangers, Mamelodi Sundowns, Santos, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs) having won the trophy in the 10 years since the league’s inception.

The inaugural winners, Rangers, were relegated at the end of last season and Santos have struggled since their 2001/2002 success, so it appears the only true contenders will again be the three heavyweights — Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns.

The team that will win the championship is likely to be one with a huge squad of experienced players — which fuels the feeling that the champions will come from among the big three.

Few other clubs have the resources to match them over the next five months and the title might be out of sight by the time the extended Christmas break begins.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to the coaches of three of the clubs whose realistic ambitions might be a cup trophy or a position in the top eight on the importance of a good start to a difficult season.

After the relegation of Manning Rangers, Golden Arrows are the sole representatives of KwaZulu-Natal left in the PSL. They take on newly promoted Free State Stars on Sunday.

Coach Khabo Zondo said: “Winning the first game is a morale booster for the next few games and says a lot about your pre-season camps. It makes it easier for the players to approach the next game without fear and can be a positive sign that the team is heading in the right direction.”

The Arrows coach says an opening-day victory would allow him to concentrate on other plans he has for the team. “But when you lose your first game you constantly want to know where you are in the log table and that puts the team under pressure,” he says.

The first game is like a blind date for a team and can be used as a barometer to check on where the team is and what still needs to be done to improve the squad, Zondo believes.

Pitso Mosimane, coach of Supersport United, who won the SAA Supa 8 last season, does not place quite as much importance on the first fixture alone.

“It is not important to win the first game — it is important to win all your games,” says last year’s coach of the season.

Mosimane says winning the first game does not mean you will be successful throughout the season as this is just a short-term thing and success is measured over time. Supersport take on last season’s surprise package, Dynamos, on Sunday.

Roger de Sa, formerly with Wits — who were relegated last season — has taken over at Santos. His Cape-based side travel to Gauteng on Saturday to take on Moroka Swallows — one of the clubs he kept goal for during his playing career.

“It is important to win the first game as it sets the pace for the club,” he says. As a coach he sets a target of how many games he would like to win or how many points the club should have amassed at certain points in the season.

“The first game is a mental issue as a win would boost morale at the club,” says De Sa. Winning the first game makes the job of a coach much easier, he believes.

n Ajax Cape Town started their PSL campaign on a positive note on Wednesday when they beat Jomo Cosmos 2-1.

The win will not only boost their league ambitions but give them a lift ahead of their clash in Cape Town on Sunday with Egyptian powerhouse Al Ahly in the African Champions League.

The Cape team will need to reverse a 2-0 defeat suffered in Cairo a few weeks ago if they are to advance to the semifinals of the continental competition. This is a big ask as Al Ahly have won this tournament a record five times, which earned them the title of African club of the century.

South African clubs have struggled to impose themselves on Africa’s premier club trophy after Pirates won its predecessor, the African Cup, in 1995, before the competition changed to a league format.

The only time South Africa came close was in 2001 when Sundowns lost to Al Ahly in the champion’s league final.

Kaizer Chiefs earned the country’s only other continental honour, winning the Cup Winners’ Cup (also known as the Mandela Cup) in 2001.