Stadium storm hits Cape Town

Dry run: The Mother City’s stadiums – like the one in Athlone  – are not exempt from the drought, a fact that Ajax says is out of the team’s control. Photos: Luke Walker/Gallo Images

Dry run: The Mother City’s stadiums – like the one in Athlone – are not exempt from the drought, a fact that Ajax says is out of the team’s control. Photos: Luke Walker/Gallo Images

A storm is brewing in Cape Town. The debilitating drought faced by the Western Cape has not only exacerbated an existing issue but has brought it to the fore.

After a complaint by AmaZulu, the Premier Soccer League (PSL) announced on Wednesday morning that Ajax Cape Town have been charged for allegedly failing to provide an adequate stadium for the match between the two last year. The game took place at the Athlone Stadium on November 25 and an error-strewn 90-minutes ended all square at 2-2. Visiting coach Cavin Johnson would later describe the pitch as a “beach” and confirmed that he lodged a complaint with the league before kick-off.

“Following a protest by AmaZulu, Ajax Cape Town has been charged with contravening rule 9.1 of the NSL Handbook for allegedly failing to provide a suitable venue for their Absa Premiership fixture against AmaZulu on 25 November 2017,” the PSL wrote in a statement.

Ajax’s first-choice venue is Cape Town Stadium, which they share with cross-town rivals, Cape Town City FC.

When it is unavailable for varying reasons, Athlone is usually used as a secondary home for both teams. Athlone also hosts five other First Division sides. Both stadiums are owned by the city.

The game against AmaZulu could not be played at the Cape Town Stadium because preparations were under way for the South African leg of the HSBC Rugby Sevens, which would take place the following weekend. The situation outraged Cape Town City coach Benni McCarthy who made headlines for lambasting the city council for the way it treated football. He charged that it was ridiculous that his team had to regularly seek alternate playing fields, arguing that no one would dream of asking the Stormers to vacate Newlands for a week.

But Ajax communications manager Thabiso “Shooz” Mekuto said the charge is not about pointing fingers but rather about pettiness.

“I don’t even think it’s worth entertaining,” he said. “It’s a ridiculous charge; maybe they do it because it’s formalities so they have to comply.”

Severe drought has plagued Cape Town for many months and has undoubtedly affected its sports fields. Athlone is certainly not an exception. Shooz laid the stadium’s condition firmly at the feet of the crisis and questioned how the club was expected to control the weather.

“We have had a one-and-a-half year drought in the Western Cape. So who can control that situation? No one. So AmaZulu is just being petty because in Durban it rains a lot. They have pitches that you cannot compare to Cape Town in any case, even now while they have water. Moses Mabhida is crap. Cape Town stadiums don’t have water but they’re way better, even now.

“The PSL went on to the pitch to inspect; they know the situation. That’s why they decided to give a break to the teams of Cape Town. We had our home game away at BidVest so they could change the pitch. The pitch was not being watered, not because they didn’t want to but because there was no water in the area.

“It’s ridiculous to charge a club for not preparing a venue when they don’t own one. No club in Cape Town owns a stadium.”

Shooz dismissed suggestions that the city was to blame for not making Cape Town Stadium available during the Sevens.

“It’s an annual event. If we were chucked away for a church event or something not related to sport, the city should be [held accountable]. But that event is scheduled for that date every single year. I wouldn’t say the City of Cape Town is responsible.

“The second venue was made available so they did plan B. This was never about low maintenance. There was no rain, end of story.”

Raw facts

Regardless of whether Ajax is content to juggle Cape Town Stadium, the league’s rules state that the final responsibility is on its clubs to arrange a pitch for home matches.

In response to questions, PSL spokesperson Luxolo September said the team will have an opportunity to present their case at Monday’s disciplinary hearing.

“They will have an opportunity at the DC [disciplinary committee] to explain all these facts, the points in their defence so to speak. The onus of choosing a home venue, as far as we are concerned, is on the home club. Not on a city somewhere. How that happens is up to them and their arrangement with whomever. This is not saying Ajax are guilty, it is just giving a fact according to the PSL.”

September explained the process undertaken by the league before a club is charged. Essentially, once a complaint is received, in this case from AmaZulu, an independent prosecutor is appointed to look into the issue. If the prosecutor determines that the complaint has merit then the league is informed and a disciplinary committee is formed.

September was unable to expand on the repercussions Ajax could face. Even if found guilty, mitigating factors could come into play. An independent prosecutor is appointed by the league to look into all these matters, he said.

Long-term game

The issues go deeper for John Comitis — beyond the Ajax charge, the city council or even the rain. The Cape Town City owner is determined to bring an entirely different attitude and atmosphere to Western Cape football.

The first step towards that dream? Get the club its own stadium. And he’s halfway there. Comitis says he has obtained the lease to Hartleyvale Stadium and intends to revamp it. It will be used as a training field at first but the vision is to turn it into a 10 000-seater match-day stadium. One that is not shared by seven teams.

Unlike Shooz, Comitis made it clear that Athlone is very much a second choice and bemoaned having to use it so frequently.

“Yes, we had a problem with the pitch. And that’s because there’s too much traffic. They’re not managing the turf properly. And they haven’t watered it sufficiently compared to the way they were watering the Cape Town Stadium,” Comitis said.

“We’re trying to win the league and, here, our next three, four games are at Athlone. It’s not my preferred stadium, not of the fans either. The fan base that we have attracted deserve the best facilities, which are at the Cape Town Stadium. It’s a beautiful football stadium there and we need to be using it.”

Sharing the Mother City’s premier football stadium is not an inconvenience for Comitis. It’s the fact that it’s used for so many non-football activities that bothers him.

“Every time there is some other event, or some cultural event, or some ultra-event, then we have to take the back seat. That’s just not good enough.

“Instead of having a wedding, maybe they can have a Cape Town City match? Sometimes they only use the perimeter but, because of the traffic, we can’t even use the stadium. Everything is the glass half-empty when we use the Cape Town Stadium … until rugby comes in and then they start taking photographs on the roof, then everything’s easy. It’s the attitude towards the sport; they don’t see what we see.”

Cape Town City’s foray into the Confederation of African Football Confederations Cup appears to be affording them no privileges either. According to Comitis, the city has refused them access to their preferred venue for the game against Swaziland’s Young Buffaloes. Meanwhile, KwaZulu-Natal is reportedly interested in hosting it.

“Now we’re going to CAF, we’re going to be representing more than just Cape Town. Now, we’re swerving to see if we can get the Cape Town Stadium for our CAF game. At the moment, they have told us no. Now they’re phoning us from Durban and offering us money to go play the game there. They’re more worried about whether our cheerleaders are on the pitch.

“To create an ethos and to create a fan culture, we have to change our mindset. You see how rugby and cricket have done it over the years. It’s because they have controlled their own stadia.”

Whatever the outcome of Monday’s disciplinary hearing, the issues of Cape Town’s stadiums, and how they’re utilised, is unlikely to blow over soon.

Luke Feltham

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