The highveld cold struck at the bones on Thursday morning, but the squad was in good spirits as they exited the changing rooms and jogged on to the pitch.
Steve Komphela waited at the bottom of the Naturena steps to embrace every player, passing on encouraging words as they went by to join the pre-session huddle. He even took time to share some banter and argue with his team over why Cristiano Ronaldo’s winning goal in the extraordinary Champions League match the night before was not a penalty.
But there is no amount of jovial handshakes that can disguise the bitter fallout of last week’s actions.
There is a perverse, unspoken mythos about the third goal in football. It completes the humiliation. Sparks the anger.
In truth, Kaizer Chiefs had stopped playing with any semblance of intent long before Edward Manqele tapped in to confirm the fiasco and a 3-0 loss to relative underdogs Chippa United. The Chiefs players’ static defence redefined what we understand as ball watching — as they stood and seemingly admired the Chilli Boys’ clean cut through their box.
The defeat, Amakhosi’s worst in the Premier Soccer League since losing to Santos by the same scoreline in 2009, sent the supporters present into a rage, one that the PSL has condemned and promised to look into.
You could hardly pick a worse week for a fan debacle.
Wednesday marked 17 years since the Ellis Park disaster — the ugliest blot on democratic South Africa’s sporting history.
The day after their team’s embarrassing display, Kaizer Chiefs management met to discuss the events that had transpired and the next steps for the club. A letter was released to fans shortly afterwards, acknowledging that their voices are being heard and admitting that the season’s performance is not what they deserve. Not much can be done now, but a revamp was promised before a ball is kicked in the 2018-2019 season.
“One of the notable decisions from the meeting is that decisive changes will have to be implemented at the end of the season to remedy the situation,” read the letter.
“At this stage, circumstances do not permit for us to make immediate changes. However, we are looking to have a complete overhaul of the team before the commencement of the new season.”
The statement is as close to confirmation we’ll get that Komphela’s cooked goose is now getting extra crispy. It’s extremely difficult to envision Amakhosi going through with a reconstruction but sparing the man who has led the charge into this trophyless wasteland.
Komphela aside, it will be intriguing to see just how liberally management has used the word “overhaul” — it wouldn’t be the first time a set of football fans has been offered an empty platitude.
Still, the squad would be wise to consider the final month of the season as an audition if they have future ambitions of wearing the black and yellow kit.
“When they hired us to play for Kaizer Chiefs, we knew the consequences of things not going to plan,” said longtime player Willard Katsande on the sidelines of training at Naturena on Thursday morning. “But we can’t say what’s going to happen. All we can do now is try to focus and finish the four games and try to get a spot in the Champions League and do well in the Nedbank Cup.
“It’s painful for your colleagues to lose their jobs because we are breadwinners — we look after our families. But at the same time we need the club to be competent, so it’s up to the management.”
The veteran Zimbabwean international was adamant that the appropriate response to the Chippa loss would be to walk forward and not waste tears on something in the past.
“It was a tough, tough, tough game for us. We took it as men and we went back to the drawing board,” said Katsande. “We want to rectify our mistakes; we don’t want to repeat them. It’s football. There’s nothing we can do to affect what happened on Saturday — all we can do is move forward to the next game. We are working hard to redeem ourselves. The last match was an eye-opener.”
Although Komphela’s claim last week that winning the league is still possible is hilarious, his drive to maintain high morale in the face of the club’s statement this week is admirable.
You get the sense that camaraderie like that on show during training is necessary if Chiefs are going to challenge for the Nedbank Cup, plus there is a lingering fear about what post-season could bring.
“I haven’t thought about that,” said midfielder Philani Zulu. “I’m hoping we maintain the same squad because we’ve gelled quite well. There’s still a lot to be done but we’re almost there. Looking at our players and the way we play, we have a lot of quality in the squad. It’s just up to us as players to redeem ourselves.
“It’s all on our shoulders and we’re ready to keep on fighting. We haven’t given up and we’re not looking down. We’ve kept our heads up and that’s the way it should be. You win some and you lose some, and it just depends on how you keep on fighting.”
Amakhosi take on Free State Stars next weekend in the Nedbank Cup semifinal. Victory could likely line up a glamour final against Sundowns in Cape Town.
In the meantime, a robust and tenacious response will be needed against Platinum Stars on Sunday if they are to keep their own fans from bashing down the door.