AmaZulu are stuck uncomfortably in purgatory.
In classic theology, it’s where the dead go to absolve themselves of the sins that are threatening their bid for heaven. Through fire and pain, they are purged of the weakness that led them away from a virtuous life.
In football terms, purgatory is the bottom of the table as the Christmas divide approaches.
Usuthu cannot afford to reach that point. Given their current form they cannot expect to survive come May.
So low is their position that their redemption must be expedited if they expect to reach the divine heights of the 2019-2020 Premier Soccer League (PSL) season. As the licking flames intensify, mental strength suddenly becomes a vital attribute.
“You can’t coach the mind,” warns their coach, Cavin Johnson. “The mind is difficult to coach. There are moments when you have to step back.”
He has been unafraid to say publicly when he thinks his players should do better. After their 3-0 drubbing by Cape Town City two weeks ago, he lamented that his team had given him an annoying questions-to-answers ratio. That came after he had demanded a few days earlier that they conduct themselves as warriors, as the club’s name demands. It’s clear that he values the effort over the result.
Which is why he didn’t look dimly on last Saturday’s Telkom Knockout 3-1 elimination to Orlando Pirates.
“When we travelled to Cape Town, it really, really wasn’t a good advert for us as a club because our players can do much better,” he says. “But to come back and play against Pirates, for sure they have stepped up a gear.
“The big test will be this weekend to maintain the level of energy and commitment we had against Pirates against [next opponent] Polokwane City.”
Why Johnson has been so eager to stress the importance of mental fortitude is that they have been dealt a particularly crappy hand, the equivalent of a seven-deuce in poker. It’s one thing overcoming your own shortcomings; it’s another thing entirely to step back up after a heel has booted you down.
Fifa ordered six points to be deducted from AmaZulu earlier this season for not paying fees to former player Phinheas Nambandi after it was found that his contract was unlawfully terminated in 2014.
So, although the club is fully deserving of their tussle with relegation, they haven’t been as useless as the three points on the board suggest.
“Obviously when you get deducted points, you get cross and sad. But as players it has nothing to do with us,” says captain Mbongeni Gumede.
Captain Mbongeni Gumede says the team must stay motivated despite having points deducted. (Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
“I think it did affect us as players, but there’s nothing we can do. What’s done is done. We can only look forward to the future. It’s going to start at this weekend’s game and we’re going to see where we are. We have to take the responsibility, unfortunately. We are the ones who are inside the field.”
Chosen as a leader when he was only 24, Gumede reaffirmed his commitment to the club by signing a long-term deal in June.
There’s no obvious reason for this side to be struggling so much. After missing out on a top-eight finish only because of having a lower goal difference than provincial rivals Golden Arrows, Usuthu brought in exciting Argentine Emiliano Tade and Bongi Ntuli, who is on loan from Sundowns.
Combine the two with Siyethemba Sithebe and you have a trident that’s capable of piercing any defence on its best day. And they did at the start of the season, convincingly dispatching Baroka and Free State Stars in two of their first three games.
What’s happened since is best characterised by the first Buccaneer strike on Saturday. Vincent Pule’s through ball had a dangerous spin to it but ultimately the experienced Sadat Ouro-Akoriko should have covered instead of trusting that the slow-off-his-line Siyabonga Mbatha would be able to get there in time.
For three months now, the backline has allowed stupid errors to slip through their palms. Like Pule, the average opposition knows the quickest route to goal is often a straight line through the centre — such is their propensity to allow movement in their inside channel.
You can’t coach moments of madness, Johnson was again sure to point out when it was put to him.
It’s hard to argue with him there, which is why a player like Gumede is determined to be a leader at the back who can help to reverse the trend that has seen the side concede the joint most goals in the PSL, many of which came through personal error.
“It’s my responsibility to keep the team going, keep them motivated and not to look down because this is not the time to look down,” the centre-back says defiantly. “I have been telling the guys that we need to work hard and try win some games in the league. It’s going to be tough from now on. We mustn’t dwell on the past. The Pirates game is finished now.”
For all the talk of war and strength, it will come to nought if both shield and spear aren’t at their most devastating this weekend. Three points after 10 points is not only an ugly score, but may just be a death sentence. If AmaZulu don’t exorcise their plague of sloppiness, and fast, a life in a lower place will surely await.