Only way is up for Sundowns
This just in: several Mamelodi Sundowns players were seen laughing at training this week. Coach Johan Neeskens did not share in the levity, but by all accounts the former New York Cosmos star hasn't laughed aloud since the closure of the Studio 54 nightclub, his preferred boogie wonderland, in 1981.
After a month of uproar, an odd semblance of peace has descended on Sundowns's custard-yellow castle in Chloorkop. But it may well vanish if Neeskens's men lose Saturday's Telkom Knockout quarterfinal against lowly Amazulu at King Zwelithini Stadium in Umlazi, Durban.
Club owner Patrice Motsepe has done well to ignore demands by enraged supporters that he dismiss his brains trust: first Neeskens and then general manager Kenneth Makhanya and technical director Trott Moloto. Backing the Dutchman was a sensible effort to break a cycle of kneejerk dismissals that has contributed to a four-year trophy drought. Motsepe's loyalty to Makhanya and Moloto – the men who control Downs's lavish but haphazard transfer dealings – may not be as wise in the long run.
For now, it all comes down to the current constellation of players, who bear a responsibility beyond making the monthly payments on their gleaming Beemers. A bad Sundowns is bad for South African football. As the best-funded football club on the African continent, it should be blazing a trail to the pinnacle of African competition and making a winning case for intelligent football in the Premier Soccer League. Instead it's blazing a trail after its own tail. Far too many talents have drifted – or worse – at Chloorkop.
Attendances have plummeted in recent weeks, with fans boycotting games in protest at the status quo. It may not be a bad thing for the players to get some privacy right now: it may help them to enjoy their work and emerge from their rut.
Struggling striker Eleazar Rodgers has vowed to mark his first Downs goal with a "gangnam style" celebration and he will like the look of Amazulu's defensive record: Usuthu have shipped 15 goals in eight league outings this season.
But in the absence of the injured Katlego Mphela and with Nyasha Mushekwi off-colour, the Downs strike force has looked as lethal as a bunch of overripe bananas. They have not scored in five successive league games and their only goal during the past six fixtures was netted by Anthony Laffor in the previous round of the Telkom Knockout against AmaTuks.
The Liberian forward has found some form and favour after a sluggish start to his Downs career last season. This week, he pleaded for an end to the fan stayaway. "It's frustrating for a club like Sundowns to be so low in the league," said Laffor. "But we're all professionals and we're still capable of winning anything this season and we are motivated by our coach, by each other and our families. But we also need the support of the fans."
When a reporter suggested to Neeskens that Amazulu were on form after holding Pirates to a draw, the coach was having none of it. "No, they are doing badly, just like us," he growled, scorning an invitation to flatter in true Dutch fashion.
His countryman Arje Schut may prove key to a Downs comeback. A commanding defender, he is the sort of foreigner the Premier Soccer League needs: at 31, he is seasoned but not washed up. He rejected Major League Soccer and Australian offers to come here. "I was at FC Utrecht for 12 years," said Schut. "I'm quite a loyal guy, but at the back of my mind I was looking for adventure."
Schut loves South Africa but finds the football too frenetic. "It's a very physical and technical league and they're all very fast. The only thing that's missing is a bit more tactical knowledge.
"In Europe they build up slowly and look for spaces and then bam! they go," he said. "But here they go, go, go – all the time. Even defenders like to attack, so sometimes you look around and see only two men at the back and think 'What's going on?'"
That question is often asked about Mamelodi Sundowns and it's never been harder to answer.
l In Friday night's Telkom Knockout quarterfinal, high-riding Maritzburg United host SuperSport United at Harry Gwala Stadium. On Saturday night, Bidvest Wits host Free State Stars, and Bloemfontein Celtic welcome Orlando Pirates on Sunday.