/ 28 September 2007

Da Gama takes helm at Bucs

In the 1980s an unknown midfielder-cum-striker, Owen da Gama, came off the bench for Moroka Swallows to score in a 2-1 victory in the Soweto derby against Orlando Pirates. Little did he know then that he would one day be the Bucs’ head coach.

After that victory, Da Gama’s place among the Dube Birds’ faithful was cemented. The young player was nicknamed Rubber Doll, such was the skill he displayed in bending and jiving to avoid serious injuries from defenders determined to stop him in his tracks.

It was also against Pirates that he made his name as a coach. Da Gama was coaching Silver Stars — now known as Platinum Stars — when they knocked Pirates out of the first round of the Absa Cup in 2002.

Their win came as a surprise to the local football fraternity and brought Da Gama their attention. What made the 2-0 victory even more memorable was that Stars were still campaigning in the first division.

In their first year in the premiership, Stars made it to the Coca-Cola Cup final, where they lost to Kaizer Chiefs. Last season Da Gama led Stars to the Telkom Cup, beating Ajax Cape Town 3-0.

Da Gama took Stars from the amateur ranks in the 1998/89 season to league runners-up last year, enabling them to qualify for one of the two places reserved for South Africa in the African Champions League. Da Gama, the reigning Premier Soccer League coach of the year, signed a contract with Pirates on Thursday. It will run until 2010.

Da Gama said this week that coaching Pirates would be a challenge. He compared it with coaching London club Chelsea, the manager of which, Jose Mourinho, recently left after a fall-out with club owner Roman Abramovich over what the boss saw as lack of entertainment in Chelsea’s game.

Da Gama warned against premature expectations. ”I want to have a winning team and to have a winning team you need to have a solid foundation. I’m going to do a total assessment on everything to get a better understanding of the team and then we can talk about players who are needed in the team and my assistant coach.”

Da Gama spent nine seasons with Stars, each of which was more successful than the previous. He felt it was time to move on so that he could prove himself with a bigger club. And you don’t get more pressure than at Pirates.

The last coach, Bibey Mutombo, announced on Monday that he was giving up his job because he feared for his safety. Pirates have lost three of their four league matches and Mutombo, who was never a popular choice — people believed he had worked previous coach Milutin Sredejovic out of a job — was never given time to settle.

Da Gama’s appointment seems to have cured club boss Irvin Khoza’s fixation with employing foreign coaches on the basis that they instil new knowledge in the local game.

Four of the last five Pirates’ coaches carried foreign passports — with Gordon Igesund, whose team won the championship in the 2000/01 season, the odd man out. Welcoming Da Gama, Khoza said it was important to appoint a local coach who understood the culture of South African football.

”Owen knows that the job is very challenging, but he is a man who can stand up to any challenges. We were very close to signing a foreign coach and we were very excited when we learned about his availability,” said Khoza. One challenge facing Da Gama is how he deals with the notoriously ill-disciplined, yet gifted, players at Pirates.

”I’m used to players who are not disciplined and it is up to you as a coach on how you handle the situation. I will always protect my players and try to help them wherever I can. Ill-disciplined players must not be exposed, they should be helped,” said Da Gama.

Having played in Europe — Belgium, Ireland and Spain — and in South Africa, he should be able to blend the two mentalities for Pirates’ benefit.

On the field the biggest challenge for Da Gama will be to help Pirates play winning and entertaining football. With Stars he concentrated on winning, and entertaining and stylish football was not a priority.

In a previous interview with the Mail & Guardian, Da Gama disputed the generally held assessment about Stars’ lack of style. Rather, he labelled the team’s approach ”positive”.

”We can’t play like Real Madrid, we can’t play like \Barcelona, but we can play like Silver Stars. We can’t be anything but ourselves,” he said.

The Pirates faithful, raised on a diet of what Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon called an ”enthusiastic way of playing”, will be hoping Da Gama will bring some enthusiastic play to their side.