Football’s changing of the guard

History doesn’t win matches. It certainly doesn’t win titles. But the Soweto giants seem to have forgotten this, ushering in an era in which their dreary play and confused style mean their fans would rather sit in a bar and watch European football on ­television.

Where the Calabash used to play host to one of the most scintillating derbies in world football, now the cavernous stadium only serves to highlight how few people are willing to pay to watch Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs half-heartedly spar for three points. The Orlando Stadium fares only slightly better, with its smaller capacity allowing the die-hard fans to hide the lack of appetite from the public at large, thanks to their vuvuzelas.

That these two institutions of South African football are on their way out wasn’t clear until this 2016-2017 season continued in the same way as last season. Recent history has shown up the failings of once-great teams. Chiefs enjoyed a dominant period in the first half of this decade. Pirates almost added a second star to their shirts with a late run in the African Cup. Their players packed the national squad as it came gloriously close to beating Mexico in the 2010 World Cup, before being hammered by the class of Diego Forlán and Uruguay.

But their opponents were investing in talent and focusing on playing stylish football: the sort of free-flowing township diski that made watching football in Soweto a must. Last season passed without a trophy for either of the giants. Any thought of this being a blip had been banished by another season of dreary football.

Pirates sit with a negative goal difference, although they could go third if they win their games in hand. Recent performances suggest that they will not, drawing six and winning four of their 12 matches to date. Chiefs have fared slightly better, with a win lifting them to fourth position. That victory against minnows Polokwane City did at least produce goals, with Chiefs winning 3-2. It also ended an eight-game winless streak. But it highlighted the team’s poor defence and the reliance on goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, so often their best player.

This would be complete anathema for teams that used to sign only special players. It used to take a footballer with a big, brave heart and the hunger to be the best to be good enough to don the black or yellow shirt.

Now, signings seem to be made on the basis of a player’s hairstyle. The hunger is gone, with once-good players allowed to overstay their welcome and take the field when they should be put out to pasture.

In stark contrast, Mamelodi Sundowns are playing beautiful football, have the best players in the league and, most importantly, are winning trophies. They are the African champions, having achieved something that Pirates consistently tried in recent years but ultimately failed to do when faced with quality teams.

Their excuse was that the tournament’s scope meant balancing the league and continental cup was too great a challenge. The Pirates that won back-to-back trebles had no such complaints.

That hunger of old is now something seen in other teams. Pirates were hammered 6-1 by Supersport, the club’s heaviest loss since a marauding Sundowns walloped them by the same margin in a BP Top Eight Cup match in 1990. The same team beat them in the Telkom Knockout competition earlier this season, before losing to another team that has been attracting football fans in need of entertainment: Cape Town City. This is that team’s first year of existence and it has added to that cup win by going into the Christmas period at the top of the Premier Soccer League (PSL). 

City’s story has been likened to that of Leicester City, which won the English Premier League despite 5 000-1 odds of doing so. Leicester were flirting with relegation the season before. Pirates and Chiefs are nowhere near winning the PSL, but history does warn that complacency can easily lead to relegation from South Africa’s premier division.

The Soweto teams only have to look at Moroka Swallows, the original opposition for Pirates in the Soweto derby. Once a mighty team, Swallows were the first club to go professional in South Africa when they registered as a company. But the new millennium saw them following the same path that Pirates and Chiefs are now following, with lacklustre players earning bloated salaries in return for little work on the pitch. A win in the 2007 Nedbank Cup temporarily glossed over their long-term decline. But relegation in the 2014-2015 season was quickly followed by further relegation last season. Survival this season is still not guaranteed, with the once-great club placed 10th in the ABC Motsepe League.

That fate might seem impossible because of the big-money sponsorships that Amakhosi and Bucs both enjoy, but sponsors follow fans and those fans are staying away.

Both teams are ignoring the same signs that Swallows ignored, mainly that fans travel to watch entertaining football. These days the misfiring Pirates and Chiefs have provided just the opposite. And who wants to hand over their hard-earned cash to be depressed and disappointed by players who struggle with the basics of passing a ball and don’t have the bravery, or innovation, to bring fans to their feet?

It is no shock that both teams gain the most support on the road, when they travel to games in provincial capitals where fans still hope to see good football from their idols.

A change might come next year, with increasing calls for Chiefs’ hierarchy to sack coach Steve Komphela. But it is unlikely that his axing will change anything. The rot has settled into the club’s dressing room, with the quality of players who don the black and gold now embarrassingly poor on the whole.

Chiefs’ current generation of players play the game as if their eyes are already on the parking lot and the trip back home to their mansions. No passion. No innovation. No style. Nothing that makes them special.

Pirates fare little better. In a fantasy premier league Top Three, the Soweto giants would probably not even feature.

Those spots belong to Sundowns, Supersport and Wits. Thanks to their hunger and beautiful football, the age of the old and once mighty has truly come to an end this season.

You just have to look at the PSL table. Pirates have played 12 and won four games. Chiefs have played 14 and won five matches.

This isn’t the form of teams that want to win a league.

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