How plucky kids triumphed
“Ba-roka!” the fans scream from the stands. Loosely translated as “they rock”, the cry is as apt as any to describe the giant-killing acrobatics that Baroka FC has become known for.
This is a club that showed their intentions as early as 2011, while still playing in the now defunct Vodacom League, the third tier of South African football, when it managed to overcome glamour boys Kaizer Chiefs.
That victory would prove to be a milestone, and Baroka became the first amateur team to reach the semis of a major tournament and the first amateur club to beat Chiefs.
Slowly cementing their place in the big leagues, their latest accomplishment makes them the first club to win a major cup tournament in only their third season in the Premier Soccer League.
Baroka pulled off a gutsy performance against league title chasers Orlando Pirates in the final of the Telkom Knockout at a packed Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on December 8. The 3-2 penalty shoot-out victory rubbed salt into the Buccaneers’ wounds — they haven’t tasted cup victory since 2012.
The game lived up to what fans expect of a cup final, with the action oscillating back and forth.
Baroka, from Ga-Mphahlele village in Limpopo, were the first to hit the back of the net with a 45th-minute strike by Jemondre Dickens. Pirates responded 12 minutes later with an equaliser by veteran attacking midfielder Musa Nyatama.
But the young and inexperienced side upped their game and continued to drive at the star-studded Pirates, until cracks began to show in the 95th minute when Pirates keeper Siyabonga Mpontshane committed a foul inside the box.
Baroka’s star player Mduduzi Mdantsane made no mistake from the penalty spot.
In arguably the most entertaining clash the country has seen in recent years, Pirates replied six minutes before the end of extra time with a header from Thembinkosi Lorch. But it was Bakgaga who had the last laugh, lifting the trophy from an equally intense penalty shoot-out.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian from Johannesburg two days after their historic win, coach Wedson Nyirenda, who previously coached the Zambian national team and is a former top scorer for Chiefs, said planning had more to do with their victory than quality play.
“I believe in planning, and then the implementation of the plan, instead of just leaving it hanging. And the support of the people you work with is equally important, and I’ve been enjoying it. Coming to this game was not easy … we were not playing against a mediocre team, but Pirates, a legacy brand. They have great players; we knew they were not going to sit back and leave us alone.”
Baroka are by far the youngest side in the Premier Soccer League, and most of their players were born in the mid to late 1990s. Their youngest player, Rebone Ntsoane, is 19.
But Nyirenda agrees with popular belief that, in the next transfer period, his squad would benefit from having more experienced players.
“My young players are quick learners and play very well. But roping in two or three big guns will bring about stability. I also understand that finishing has been poor, but if you look at the back-to-back wins against Sundowns, Arrows and Wits, that’s proof that things are changing,” said Nyirenda.
Club head Morgan Mammila confirmed that the players will share much of the R4-million prize money.
“The players knew from day one that they have got a big portion of the prize money, as the chairman [Khurishi Mphahlele] said that he does not want money; he wants the cup. They will share. I’m not going to say all of it though. To us this thing needs privacy to protect the players.”
Ironically, Baroka languishes in the relegation mix in the Absa Premiership table; the teams they beat en route to their historic moment, including Pirates, are all title-chasers.
Baroka eliminated Mamelodi Sundowns 2-1 in the Telkom semi-finals and dethroned previous winners Bidvest Wits 1-0 in the quarters.