It’s the moment the uncultured could never fully comprehend. The time we had set aside weeks ago. It’s the day football returns to our stadiums and television.
As if that isn’t enough to melt winter’s depression, the fixture gods have truly blessed us with a beautiful matchday one programme, topped off by Sundowns versus Kaizer Chiefs.
Masandawana will go into the opening game still entrenched as favourites for the league title. Their opponents will be eager to prove it is them, and not Orlando Pirates, that will offer the biggest challenge to what is becoming a steadfast hegemony.
The overhaul that was promised at Amakhosi has not quite come to fruition. Khama Billiat is the only major signing and there are no departures of note. Giovanni Solinas was appointed fairly late as Steve Komphela’s replacement amid murmurs that he was not at the top of the coaching wish list. Patrice Carteron, Stuart Baxter, Luc Eymael and even Avram Grant were reportedly sought before him.
Nonetheless, all that talk will fade away if Downs coach Pitso Mosimane is denied a first win on Saturday.
“It’s good that we start with Sundowns,” Chiefs defender Ramahlwe Mphahlele said this week. “It’s going to be tough but we have worked very hard in preseason. We’re not where we want to be but I think we’re going to have a go. We’re going to Pretoria to play. The new coach wants us to defend together and play together so we’ll give it a go. We’re confident of getting something out of the game.”
Mphahlele spoke candidly of improving form to avoid the ugly scenes of earlier this year, both on and off the pitch. He specifically referred to Chief’s upcoming MTN8 game against Free State Stars as the moment they need to deliver — it was the loss against Eymael’s men that set off the hideous Moses Mabhida violence.
Amakhosi can claim to have the most demanding supporters in the country. They’re probably still slightly tipsy with anger about the Komphela era and the players know the pressure will be on from this weekend’s first whistle.
On the positive side, scoring one over a rival with the Billiat signing will bring them glee. With Colombian Leonardo Castro making the same move a few months ago, the Masandawana defence will be preparing to face a very familiar attack.
“Sundowns think I’m the one that’s snatching them from Chloorkop,” joked Mphahlele, himself a former Brazilian. “Guys, it’s not me: it’s football. Players move when they feel like they want to move. It’s good for football.
“Khama is a very good player and I hope that he comes in and helps us. To our fans, we mustn’t put too much pressure on him and say, ‘now we have Khama, everything is going to be okay’. We need to work together as a team to win.”
Billiat is not even the biggest loss Mosimane has endured. Percy Tau completed his inevitable move overseas when he joined Brighton & Hove Albion last month. The transfers have left a void for a new talisman to fill and the Premier Soccer League’s most successful local coach has spent much time talking up Uruguayan Gastón Sirino as the man to do just that. Jeremy Brockie equally impressed against Togo-Port in the Confederation of African Football Champions League and the weekend’s game will give us a peek at what to expect from the new attack.
For now, captain Hlompho Kekana said he will have no choice but to grin through the torment of matching up against his old colleagues.
“We lost so many important players to Chiefs,” he said, looking ahead to the match. “It always pains me to play against them because at times I even forget that they are my teammates. I still hug them, I still talk to them. On the day I need to be professional and stick to the basics. I have to take this soft spot I have for them and try to be mean on the day.
“It’s [playing against Billiat that is] not going to be as easy as I want it to be. But, look, we try to do the business. For me, having played with Khama for five years, it’s going to be sad to see him in another colour. But it will be nice to see him do well for the club. I hope he doesn’t score against us.”
It’s only the first game but these subplots are turning it into a potentially vital result. Pirates will be hosting newly promoted Highlands Park that day and will revel in an opportunity to surge ahead of whoever comes off the marquee game worse. There will be no friends during those 90 minutes on the Loftus pitch — only those who have gathered off it to celebrate the return of football.