In the matter of just a few hours on Wednesday, the odds for Saturday’s derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates went from evenly stacked to lopsided in favour of the run-away league leaders in a dramatic example of the fluidity of the local professional game.
The resignation of Vladimir Vermezovic struck like a bolt from the blue, plummeting the Pirates camp into more of a crisis after their upset home defeat by Maritzburg United the night before.
Then, not long after, Chiefs were creating some lightning of their own as they completed a handsome 3-0 away win over Bidvest Wits to consolidate their substantial lead at the top of the standings and reinforce their potential to regain the title they ceded last season to Mamelodi Sundowns.
Not since the late 1980s, when the Buccaneers were playing so poorly they were relegation candidates, have the two rivals gone into a Soweto derby in such contrasting circumstances.
Up until the start of this week, it promised to be an evenly contested affair even if Pirates were still 12 points behind Chiefs, albeit with a game in hand.
But the lethargic manner of their defeat to Maritzburg spoke vividly of turmoil behind the scenes, confirmed when Vermezovic quit the very next day.
He had something of a haunted look after Tuesday’s loss, notably as the small crowd bayed for his blood and a few threw objects at him as he headed down the tunnel at Soccer City at the end of the game.
Afterwards, as he has admitted several times before during his nine-month tenure, he could not explain the lack of urgency or fight from his players but would get to the bottom of it.
Perhaps he figured out they looked almost purposely off colour as if to hasten his departure in much the same manner many other coaches of similar demeanour have been forced from their jobs.
In recent games, Vermezovic has been frantically searching for combinations with wholesale changes in each line-up. In the three matches before the clash with Maritzburg he made five changes each time to the starting line-up. On Tuesday, it was six, almost as if he was floundering around in the dark looking for a light switch.
Nothing got turned on, except the realisation that the fit between the taciturn Serbian and Pirates has not been easy and was ultimately doomed to fail.
From the shadows
Vermezovic had initially refused to attend any of the club’s famous weekly “technical meetings” where former Bafana Bafana coach Stanley Tshabalala seeks to influence proceedings from the shadows. The blunt approach of the Serbian was tolerated while Pirates were recovering in the last three months of last season and particularly after he brought them Nedbank Cup success in May.
But an inconsistent start to the current season, exacerbated by Chiefs’ runaway unbeaten run, has left the coach looking isolated, frustrated and, on Tuesday, almost resigned to the inevitable. The extent of his fragile relations with his players was evidenced by an “exchange of opinions” with Kermit Erasmus after he had taken off the nuggety striker.
Vermezovic comes from a tough school were players do as they are told and suck up the abusive criticism if they do not. In South Africa, as he will have known from his time at Chiefs, there needs to be a little more love and empathy in the air.
It also cannot have been easy to also deal with the emotional shock of the killing of Senzo Meyiwa. After the brief mourning period, it is now clear that the trauma of the loss of a popular player will take much longer to heal than just a week away from the game. Once again, Eric Tinkler is left to pick up the pieces just days before the derby.
Chiefs will be wary of being too complacent now, even if only the most rabid Pirates supporters would bet against another three points for AmaKhosi on Saturday.
But stranger things have happened in South African football and it is precisely this kind of exchange that is often the catalyst for a rollicking showing from a side given little chance on paper. Pirates’ players may feel unshackled and deliver on their potential, but just who the right combinations are remains a mystery.
Chiefs glided past Wits on Wednesday in a manner that spoke not only to the continued confidence their 13-match unbeaten run has brought but also to their quality. Bernard Parker scored two goals, the last one sublimely executed, to show just how much self-belief there is in the team.