Because Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane rarely displays more than one facial expression it’s often hard to know what he’s thinking.
So it was this week when he gathered in Auckland Park with some of his counterparts to officially launch the 2019-20 Premier Soccer League (PSL) campaign.
“I don’t like this game because it comes at a wrong time for us,” he said of the Tshwane Derby against SuperSport United at the Lucas Moripe Stadium this Saturday. “We’ll be lucky to get a draw.”
Was he joking? If so, he was certainly getting the desired reaction from the gathered crowd, who were falling off their seats at the repeated insistence that they’d be out of the MTN Top 8 in early August.
“Our programme is not the same as SuperSport. We are four weeks into preseason … you can ask [Highlands Park] coach Owen da Gama how many weeks he’s in, seven or eight?”
Mosimane often moans about fixture congestion but this felt different. Part of it was likely entertainment and mind games, sure, but there was a challenge buried in there. A dare to his players to start the season strongly: to assert their superiority from the off. (We would be remiss not to mention that rumours have poured in this week concerning the coach’s supposed unhappiness and imminent departure.)
After consecutive league titles, Mosimane understands that it’s only natural for motivation to begin to wane from his glittering squad. Given that the club is targeting a historic 10th league title, that’s the last thing he wants.
While this was all going on, Kaitano Tembo was sitting across from Mosimane. He was mostly quiet and didn’t try to keep up with the wit of his opponent.
The Zimbabwean’s first full season at the helm of SuperSport United was … adequate. He continued to distance the club from the relegation zone and even flirted with title contention, even if for only a fleeting second. His team’s eventual sixth place finish was not exactly enthralling to watch, however, with only 29 in the goals-for column — the lowest tally among the top eight.
Tembo enjoys the respect of almost everybody in the league, having stayed on at the club after retiring and working his way up through the coaching ranks. Mosimane even paid him an ego-laced compliment by insisting his success is a marker for his own legacy, given that the Matsatsantsa boss formerly served as his captain.
But whenever the trophies dry up, questions get asked.
“We certainly can compete,” insisted Supersport captain Dean Furman after the PSL launch. “A sixth place for us without a trophy is disappointing. So we want to be challenging that top three and see where we can go from there: we can challenge for the trophy.”
There are two perspectives on SuperSport heading into the new season.
On one hand they’re predicted to struggle to adapt to losing two key, experienced heads: Morgan Gould and Reneilwe “Yeye” Letsholonyane. On the other, there’s the belief that the younger players coming through are good enough to keep the club’s direction pointed firmly upwards.
Teboho Mokoena is the obvious star of the latter theory. United have so far successfully — and vitally — rebuffed all attempts to court the 21-year-old, who recently scooped the PSL Young Player of the Season award.
“Yeye imparted a lot of knowledge to the boys and every day he was talking to them,” Furman said. “I think the young boys should have learnt a lot from him and now is that time to really step it up.”
Coming in the door are Orlando Pirates wantaways Thamsanqa Gabuza and Kudakwashe Mahachi, as well as Jesse Donn, who follows in the footsteps of Luke Fleurs in arriving from Ubuntu Cape Town.
Saturday will give us a good indication of just where Matsatsantsa are. Tembo will love nothing more than for his side to be the ones who capitalise on any Sundowns discontent.
Exactly 24 hours after the Tshwane Derby, another side will be looking to remind the PSL giants that their position at the top of the sport is not secure.
Highlands Park take on a Kaizer Chiefs side that is still reeling from finishing ninth last season. Da Gama’s outfit, by contrast, made sure that Highlands’ first season back up was a memorable one, finishing safely at seventh.
“What we’ve said is that we’re coming into this league to add value,” Da Gama said at the launch. “And not to just be a number that comes in and then the next year you’re out of it. So yes, we have strengthened very strategically.”
The Lions of the North have added a number of signings to their ever-improving roster, the highlight of which is by Polokwane City rebel forward Rodney Ramagalela.
“I think we’ve got to pay respect to the players that have gotten us where we are today,” Da Gama said. “They’ve been given new contracts and better contracts. So we really believe in our own, we really believe in the guys who took us from the [National First Division] straight through to here.”
Da Gama has always been one to plan for the future. Whoever he brings into his team is never intended as a stop-gap but a pivotal cog in his plan.
Such long-term vision has meant Highlands Park arguably enter Makhulong Stadium as favourites on Sunday afternoon.
Amakhosi have long slipped from power. So did SuperSport almost a decade ago. Sundowns have a robust foundation but the PSL is forever in flux. Are Mosimane’s tricky mind games a sign that he fears what could one day rise from below?