Low-key start to a busy season
The new season opens officially on Tuesday night in a low-key start that marks a change from how previous South African league campaigns have commenced.
The quarterfinals of the MTN8 have now been moved to midweek as the Premier Soccer League struggles to find enough dates on the calendar for its overstretched league and cup programme. Added to this are the demands of the international game and the dates designated by Fifa for national team fixtures.
Orlando Pirates and Wits have home advantage on Tuesday against Ajax Cape Town and SuperSport United respectively, and Wednesday sees Kaizer Chiefs hosting Maritzburg United and Mamelodi Sundowns at home to Bloemfontein Celtic.
The top four finishers from last season are always guaranteed home advantage in the MTN8 quarter-finals although this seeding system is no guarantee of progress for the favourites.
League champions Chiefs begin a new chapter under Steve Komphela, whose first official coaching assignment is up against his old club Maritzburg, where former assistant Mandla Ncikazi is a surprise choice as replacement.
Chiefs’ new additions were all secured well before their pre-season preparations began, towards the end of last month, in a signal of professionalism and smartly honed business skills. There has been little focus on the rather bland set of signings but plenty of attention on who is not with the club – instead of who has arrived.
The Bafana Bafana trio of Itumeleng Khune, Mandla Masango and Tefu Mashamaite all turned down potential contract renewals earlier this year in the hope of more lucrative employment elsewhere, but appear to have been soundly defeated in a poker game.
With Sundowns capping their previously prolific spending as mining magnate Patrice Motsepe feels the pinch of platinum’s woes and is sensitive to the mockery of the media, there are no domestic takers for the services of the Chiefs “refuseniks” – none at least at the money the players believe they deserve.
It is only a matter of time now before Chiefs claim a Pyrrhic victory and re-sign Khune and Masango, leaving the pair with several omelettes plastered all over their faces and a bitter taste in their mouths.
Mashamaite is much less likely to crawl back to Chiefs but just weeks after receiving the player of the season award he is still clubless. Somewhere down the line his resources will run out and he will have to settle for a compromise deal.
Sundowns are now claiming their failure last season was because they had too big a squad. That does not stack up with the facts, though.
Although they brought in too many new players, coach Pitso Mosimane was consistent in his team selection and lost the title – not because he had too many choices but because Sundowns got off to a slow start and got the game plan wrong in key games.
Their title hopes ended in April at home to Bloemfontein Celtic in a madcap match they lost 5-0. Celtic are unlikely to conjure up a repeat on Wednesday.
Pirates have had no holiday as one season has segued into the next for them under the topping of African club competition. Last weekend’s win in Tunisia proved their potential but was also costly in terms of injuries. Overexertion is sure to catch up with them, but not just yet.
The midweek cup games are followed next weekend by the kick-off of the league, delayed by one week to allow clubs to free players to compete for the under-23 national team in their Olympic Games qualifier against Zimbabwe.
After a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Harare a fortnight ago, South Africa are well placed to advance in their bid for a place at the men’s football tournament in Rio de Janeiro around this time next year.