/ 22 September 2017

Fixture bogeyman haunts us anew

Rising sun: Sundowns are hoping to defend their CAF Champions League title -- placing extra pressure on their domestic fixtures.
Rising sun: Sundowns are hoping to defend their CAF Champions League title -- placing extra pressure on their domestic fixtures.

We’re about to bid farewell to only the second month of the new season and already a massive headache has introduced itself in the form of fixture congestion. It’s a problem that’s become eerily familiar in South African football, especially for those of a Pretoria persuasion. What’s frustrating is there’s no clear culprit, no obvious target to cathartically lay the blame on.

Already behind on games played, SuperSport United will travel to Zambia to face off against Zesco United in the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Confederation Cup on Saturday. Come the weekend’s close, they will already trail many sides by two fixtures.

For neighbours Sundowns, the number will be even worse, at three outstanding fixtures. Pitso Mosimane’s men have a CAF Champions League quarterfinal against Wydad Casablanca to savour. Their 1-0 first-leg victory means they will travel to Morocco harbouring hopes of going a step closer to maintaining the title they so gloriously captured last year.

That victory in Egypt imbued pride in all of us, regardless of allegiance. It was one of those rare moments when just about every member of the football public can tell you “where I was”. After Pirates was soul-crushingly prevented from achieving a second star in 2013, it felt like redemption for the entire nation. But it came at a price domestically — at one stage, Mamelodi had an unbelievable six games in hand while having to navigate eight games in a space of 24 days. They would, of course, ultimately lose out to Bidvest Wits in the hunt for the Premier Soccer League (PSL) title.

It’s disheartening that both South African teams have become victims of their own success, forced to grind out matches in incredibly short spaces of time because they have flown the flag high abroad. Bringing pride to our shores is traded for intense labour in the domestic league.

In fairness to the league, the headache began to pound for the PSL before they could even get the fixtures out. These ties were scheduled to be completed by last weekend but were pushed ahead by CAF.

Regardless, progression to the semis in the respective competitions will only bring fresh challenges. The weekends of September 29 to October 1 and October 20 to 22 have been set aside for the final-four matches, meaning that the participants won’t be seeing any PSL action on those dates.

Beyond that, the final legs of the Champions League, Africa’s premier club competition, have been earmarked for the weekends of October 27 to 29 and November 3 to 5, with the Confederation Cup finals from November 17 to 19 and November 24 to 26. Head starting to hurt? Then you’re getting the picture.

That’s before we even begin to consider the possibility of the Brazilians winning the title again, which will book them another ticket to the Club World Cup — even more time away.

The fixture congestion can’t be entirely laid at international and continental doorsteps. The MTN 8 final will take up an entire weekend in mid-October. SuperSport United will be in action, taking on Cape Town City at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium. Many followers have grown increasingly annoyed by the lack of league games during cup weekends. Indeed, it would make sense to allow clubs to catch up on their domestic games if they’re not involved in any given competition. Seeing as the Telkom Knockout has to be concluded by the end of the year, expect those groans to grow louder.

Just to add a little more confusion into the mix, the fixture organisers also have to contend with international breaks — which, in a vacuum, are already incredibly annoying for fans and club coaches alike. Players will be called up to Bafana Bafana from October 2 to November 6. Those called will also have a cheat ref to thank for giving them an extra game to contend with after Fifa ordered the 2-1 win against Senegal in Polokwane last November to be replayed. The South African Football Association (Safa) decided against appealing the decision but will be watching with a keen eye as Burkina Faso heads to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to challenge it. Stuart Baxter’s side needs to cling to every point to have a remote hope of qualifying for Russia and all involved in South African football would probably be mightily grateful should this problem disappear.

The Bafana boss is under increasing pressure, exasperated by the team’s plummet down the world rankings. They dropped 14 places after the Cape Verde double humiliation, sitting not-so-pretty in 80th spot — and 18th on the continent.

Baxter is likely not amused by the fixture bottleneck and its potential for leaving his players fatigued. Back in May, he hinted that the PSL and Safa have worked well together on the matter, but in the same breath warned that we must escape the fate that England succumbed to owing to an overabundance of games.

“The English national team has never really fulfilled what everybody expects of it. England had the ‘golden generation’ — who didn’t really become golden. It was more like tin,” the Scot said. “One of the reasons for that is that their programme is so hectic‚ so draining‚ that by the time they have a qualification‚ they do well in the early parts but then fall away.”

Increased co-operation will benefit all, he insisted, from the clubs to Bafana. “We’ve got to get our house in the best possible order‚ so that we give our boys the best possible chance.”

As for the present, Orlando Pirates have seized the opportunity to fly the Jolly Roger in top spot on the PSL log. Much to Benni McCarthy’s chagrin, the Buccaneers defeated Cape Town City on Tuesday courtesy of an 82nd-minute Thabo Qalinge winner. They now have a game against champions Bidvest Wits on Saturday.

It’s just a pity that we’ll be preoccupied with solving the congestion conundrum instead of fully embracing the games themselves.