It’s clear that Free State Stars coach Luc Eymael is fed up with having to explain away his side’s poor results at the start of the season. His tone and inflections indicate he’s grown wary of those who query it.
“Last season we started with four points from [a possible] 15 but you saw where we ended,” he bluntly points out. “If you say we started the season badly in the matter of points, I agree with you, but not in the matter of the way of playing. Except at Wits and in the MTN8 we play correctly. It’s not such a bad start as journalists are trying to say. We have to run our lives the way that we play.”
One can understand why Eymael might not hold the press dear— for months he’s been a shining lure for its attentions. After guiding his side to an unlikely Nedbank Cup trophy and top 8 finish, the Belgian was reportedly courted by Kaizer Chiefs. Rumours spread through the country’s back news pages of how he was playing hard to get in the hope of sweetening the terms of his arrival in Soweto. Now the story is how he has failed to build on last season’s successes.
Ea Lla Koto sit 14th in the table after four games. Their only win came against the equally sluggish Maritzburg United and they were firmly thrown out of the MTN8 ring as a result of a royal Amakhosi smashing.
Eymael, though, is meticulous in his explanation of why they sit in their current position — a fate they don’t deserve. He bemoans the chances wasted against AmaZulu. “When you miss five times one-on-one with the goalkeeper, you will always be punished at the end of the day,” he sighs.
In the last outing against Cape Town City the cause was absurd lapses at the back.
Still, he maintains that there has been nothing fundamentally wrong with the way the team has been set out to play in recent weeks.
“I don’t know if you’ve read the statistics on my Instagram?” Eymael queries. “There’re the statistics on all the teams in the PSL … It’s not me that’s doing the statistics, it’s a big company.
“Which team has the most shots in the box? It’s us —by far. Who is the team that shoots the most on target? It’s us —by far. Now we must just convert the chances and be better at the back because we’re conceding some silly and stupid goals and making mistakes.
“In matters of planning we’re very good. We deserve nine points. We have to rectify that but all is not [as] bad as you would like to say. You’re just looking to the points and not looking at the way we’re playing.”
Nine points may be a bit of a stretch but it’s hard to argue with Eymael about the draw against City. Ea Lla Koto recovered well after a gaffe by their inexperienced keeper, Olivier Kwizera, and they were only denied all three points after the same player’s bizarre own goal. Those in Red collapsed, head in hands, in disbelief as the ball bounced twice off the post and onto the back of the number one’s head.
It’s those kinds of obscenely random moments that can lead a team to think the universe is responsible for their misfortune, an attitude Eymael doesn’t seem far from adopting.
That Eymael does not embrace humility is hardly breaking news. After winning the Nedbank Cup, he goaded his would-be predecessor at Chiefs, Steve Komphela, bragging about the fact that he had achieved silverware in his short career in South Africa and had more to be proud of than the current Bloemfontein Celtic coach’s 13 years in management. Polarising moments like these have the potential to isolate, to create a “you versus them” dichotomy.
Such talk was backed up with a trophy but the Belgian would do well to realise that after you’ve made yourself a marked man, South African fans will not hesitate to hound you when things start to go wrong. All those questions he believes he unjustly faces about the start to the season form part of the fabric of the game in these parts.
“First of all, you must know that I’m not a magician,” he says. “To do what we did with a team like Free State Stars is not easy. We won a trophy … with Free State Stars. Free State Stars doesn’t have the budget of Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus or Bayern Munich. We remain Free State Stars.”
Eymael’s defiance is what took his side to the borders of the fanciful last season. Whether it does so again or turns into a hulking anchor will be fascinating to watch in the coming weeks.