Pirates don’t lose sight of their star

Up the Bucs: Orlando Pirates’ ­supporters are beginning to feel their team’s losses keenly but the club’s boss, Irvin Khoza, remains upbeat about the Buccaneers’ PSL chances. Photo: Gordon Harnols/AFP

Up the Bucs: Orlando Pirates’ ­supporters are beginning to feel their team’s losses keenly but the club’s boss, Irvin Khoza, remains upbeat about the Buccaneers’ PSL chances. Photo: Gordon Harnols/AFP

For 21 years, the star above the Orlando Pirates crest had acted as a trump card. After winning the 1995 CAF Champions League, the Sea Robbers proudly added the golden embellishment above the skull and crossbones and pointed to it in both times of plenty and of drought.

The shine of the gold star was amplified during the trophy-laden spell at the turn of the decade when the coffers in Orlando were creaking under the weight of seven titles in four years. In cup final defeats, both on the continent and at home, that gold star was used as a beacon of hope; a reminder that even in setback, the might of the Buccaneers could not be ignored.
It sent a message out to the rest of the country that said: “We may be defeated here today, but we are still the golden team of South African football.” And then everything changed.

When Mamelodi Sundowns translated their domestic dominance into continental supremacy by lifting the Champions League trophy in October last year, Pirates lost the bragging rights to the one piece of their legacy that set them apart.

League defeats began to sting more than they had before and poor performances were seen without the tint of rose that had long obscured the vision of diehard fans. Now without a full-time coach and in 10th place, with only four wins from 15 matches, the team that used to carry a sense of superiority by virtue of that gold star is starting to look very ordinary.

With the 2016-2017 Premier Soccer League season set to resume next week, Pirates find themselves teetering on the precipice but somehow still within sight of the summit. Despite their low standing, only seven points separate them from SuperSport United, Bidvest Wits and Cape Town City at the top of the table. For chairperson Irvin Khoza, the club’s ambitions remain as lofty as they have always been.

“We can still win the league,” the “Iron Duke” of South African football resolutely tells me. “This is Orlando Pirates and our mission is clear. If we can get things going with three league wins on the bounce, we can generate the momentum to carry us all the way.”

Two of those potential wins will need to be secured against the Clever Boys, who are flying high thanks to the solidity provided by Gavin Hunt. In contrast, Pirates have yet to replace Mushin Ertugral, who left the club in embarrassment in November after just five months at the helm.

Khoza admits that Ertugral’s shock departure destabilised the campaign. “We won our first three games after he left but it caught up with the guys,” he says. “This has been a difficult period for the players and support staff. I have made it my priority to appoint a new manager that will fit the Pirates mould and return this team to where it belongs.”

A shortlist has been whittled down to 10 suitable candidates but Khoza is keeping mum about their identities. “Two are South African, the rest are foreign, but all are currently in charge of either a club or national side so I can’t give more information.”

That would rule out Benni McCarthy, the latest entry in the race to get the job. The former UEFA Champions League winner with FC Porto has recently obtained his UEFA A licence and has expressed his desire to manage the team he helped to secure four trophies in two years.

But McCarthy’s only real experience as a coach came in an assistant role during a brief stint with Belgian side Sint-Truidense during the 2015-2016 season and he is probably still too raw for the hot seat at Pirates.

If Khoza is after a man with experience who understands the Pirates philosophy, the caretaker coach for the umpteenth time, Augusto Palacios, seems a logical choice. But the man who has been with the club for 22 years (a number of those as interim coach) is seemingly destined forever to be a bridesmaid and never a bride. Khoza insists the Peruvian is more valuable honing the abilities of future stars than dealing with the daily pressures of management.

“Development is his passion and few others in the country have as much pedigree in this department than him,” Khoza says. “He is not the head coach by his own design and I have had talks with him about potentially becoming the director of football at the club. In Augusto, we have someone who has the ability to create a pipeline of world-class talent.”

Pirates have looked abroad to bolster their ranks rather than promote burgeoning talent from within. Centre-back James Okwuosa and left-back Marc van Heerden have both been drafted in from Chippa United in a possible exchange for Justice Chabalala, Donald Mokondelela, Sello Japhta and Nkosinathi Mthiyane.

“We need to sort out our defence as it is impossible to win anything without a strong foundation at the back,” Khoza says. “We have shipped too many goals and, as much as we would like to promote up-and-coming players, none are quite ready yet. We need to sort things out in the short term.”

The combination of the Nigerian Okwuosa and the Ghanaian Edwin Gyimah does offer an immediate solution for a defence that has not kept a clean sheet since the Soweto Derby 10 games ago. More promising is the fact that both defenders are still relatively young for their position, at 25 and 26 respectively, and could forge an indomitable long-term partnership.

With the club celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, Khoza is adamant that the players are desperate to give their fans something to cheer about. “Everyone involved wants to be a part of the rich history of the club. Though other fans might not openly admit it, the PSL needs a strong Pirates side competing for trophies. But first thing’s first we need to win those three games.”

With the Buccaneers hoping to turn their fortunes, the second half of the PSL season promises to be an enthralling prospect. With three clubs level at the top, Chiefs just a point behind in fourth and Sundowns mathematically able to overtake all the league leaders with six games in hand, Pirates could see their milestone season remain in the shade.

But, if they can harness the iron will of their chairperson, find a coach who fits their philosophy and is able to quell the restless ghost, they might yet have a shot at lifting the trophy come May. After that, talk of adding another gold star can begin again. 

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