Kaizer Motaung returned to Phefeni‚ Orlando West this week: the place where it all started. It was his family home on Sentsho Street that would serve as Kaizer Chiefs’ first clubhouse; the conveniently placed field across the road its maiden training ground.
Fifty years ago, the 26-year-old “Chincha Guluva” had just returned from a stint in the United States — a move he earned after sparkling at Orlando Pirates as a teenager. He was initially roped in to help resolve a dispute between his former club and key players who had recently been expelled by the Soweto giant. When the peace brokering failed there remained only one option. He took half of the name of the Americans he had just departed — Atlanta Chiefs — combined it with his first, and what would become the country’s biggest club was birthed.
We’ve been flooded with pleasant anecdotes as Amakhosi celebrated their 50th birthday this week. Amid the festivities, fans were offered free tickets to Wednesday’s clash with Highlands Park, Nike churned out a special commemorative edition shirt and everyone, from politicians to rival teams, were sure to pass on their congratulations. For, whatever your allegiance, there is no denying that the team Motaung built from his backyard has become a permanent and significant South African institution.
Yet the shoulders of heritage can only boost you so far. Under the carnival veneer there remains an inescapable sense of unfulfilled destiny. Contrary to Motaung’s vision, Chiefs have laboured instead of thrived in recent years — a bare trophy cabinet since 2015 is a far cry from securing a league title in the first four years of existence.
That all looked to change this season. Coach Ernst Middendorp oversaw a stroll to a double-digit lead at the top of the table, putting the famous club in firm control of that destiny once more.
And then it began to be hacked away. A couple of frustrating losses was all it took to turn things wobbly once again. Seemingly overnight, the landscape of the title race shifted — the champions were closing in, quickly snuffing out any breathing room.
Crucially, Sundowns would slow their own march on Tuesday, dropping a vital two points against Bidvest Wits. On celebratory Wednesday, meanwhile, Chiefs would make no mistake themselves and dismiss Highlands Park 3-0. Still, the threat to ruin a romantic half-centenary league win remains very real.
Middendorp surely would have expected to be quizzed on the possibility of letting a strong lead falter but that didn’t prevent him from slipping on his characteristic exasperated expression.
“This discussion about points,” he sighed. “Not to be too unspecific, but to me it was always about the number of games … 14 or 15 games on everybody’s account and then you look into it. This discussion about 11 points, 9 points, 7 points with other teams having games in hand, this is something that I never refer to. Our target in terms of each and every game is to go out and win. And that is what we will continue to do.”
The German would also go on to lament the elements of misfortune in the first match of 2020 — the 2-1 loss to SuperSport United that ushered in the current unease floating above Naturena. Samir Nurkovic, for instance, he said, would usually bury the chances he had nine out of 10 times. That day happened to be the time he did not.
Instead of scaring his side into action, publicly or otherwise, it’s clear he has opted to instead remind them of the performances that earned the Amakhosi this lead in the first place. Not losing sight of the basics is now key to maintaining it.
“I believe this is not the situation to calm down or whatever,” he continued. “We have produced the confidence over the months with the position we are in, and we will continue.
“We know, as I said, that we have to perform on a 100% level in attacking and defending. Of course the blindside responsibilities: blocking crosses, moving into the right direction and goalpost shots.”
Although there were indeed hints of bad luck at the attacking end in the United game, Middendorp would have been furious at how the two at the other end were let in. Both came from crosses that were allowed to travel far too deep into the box without being addressed. Not characteristic at all of the stubborn backline that has already secured eight clean sheets in the league this term.
First to admit his miscue was Daniel Cardoso — a player who has mostly been immense alongside Eric Mathoho. The centre-back failed to clear a blocked shot before finding himself on the backfoot and unable to prevent the ball in that allowed Bradley Grobler to net against Chiefs yet again (that’s now six from his last seven games against them).
“We’re working at it at training but obviously it’s a lapse of concentration,” Cardoso said from Naturena this week.
“They say strikers win games but defenders win titles. I think that’s something us as defenders need to talk about in training going into the next game. We’re leaking in silly goals — individual mistakes and individual errors — and once we can rectify all those mistakes things will get better and we’ll be a better Chiefs again.
“We don’t have to worry about everyone around us. We’re here as a team. We know what our achievements are and we’re not worrying about everyone else playing catch-up. We know we’re running our own race and if we start worrying about other teams it’s going to start affecting us.”
Cardoso is not wrong in his cliché. The Glamour Boys might be playing the best football in the country but it will count for nothing if they allow complacency to plant its roots. Rivals Sundowns built their recent success on a rude mental strength — gifting them the rare ability to find motivation week after week.
Middendorp would tell you his side possesses the same quality — a one-minded desire to push for the three points every week. It’s now time to prove it.