Why the Nedbank Cup will never be the same again

A maniacal grin flashes across Ernst Middendorp’s face whenever he’s asked about last year’s Nedbank Cup final, a game his Kaizer Chiefs side lost to TS Galaxy of the first division. It looks involuntary, as though he genuinely can’t believe that someone would have the gall to bring up an event from as back as May. His only concern, he says, is the present.

As understandable as the determination to remain forward focussed is, the German seems to fail to appreciate just what that day at Moses Mabhida Stadium meant for South African football. All it took was one composed, slightly-off-centre penalty in the 92nd minute to prove that there is no limit to what can be achieved on our football pitches; that even those in the lower rungs can rise to defeat the most followed team in the country.

Thanks to that watershed moment, the latest Nedbank Cup round of 32 carries more weight and anticipation to it than perhaps ever before. There’s a renewed belief that this competition may offer a platform to catapult into something great. 

Take Jomo Sono. The legendary coach is beginning to tire of the GladAfrica Championship (for the uninitiated, this is what we’re calling the first division these days). He still relishes the chance to spend each day beside a football field, but finds himself increasingly longing for the glamour of the PSL. With a promising but raw Jomo Cosmos under his command, the Nedbank Cup represents the opportunity to accelerate their growth and familiarise them to the bright lights that he once played under. Even if that begins with a fixture against ABC Motsepe League side Hungry Lions.

“They are learning but while they’re learning I’m not staying young,” he said this week. “They must learn quickly because I’m also getting old. I can’t stay too long in the NFD. By the time I retire I must be out of there.

“We want to do well. We want to do very, very well. Go as far as we can get. Just for the players to gain confidence – the league is gone, there’s no way we can catch up there … We want to use the Nedbank Cup to start building for next season.”

Another new aspect of knockout competitions this year is the capacity to field a senior side with no restrictions. At the end of last season, the National Soccer League (NSL) Board of Governors introduced a new rule that forces first division teams to field at least five U23 South Africans in every starting 11.

Cosmos have continued their struggles under the new dispensation and currently sit in 14th, far closer to relegation than the promised land of playoff spots. Sono doesn’t even seem to have contemplated the possibility of dropping down a further league, but rather wants to transform his young crop into promotion chasers as quickly as possible.

This week, Galaxy coach Dan Malesela celebrated the fact that the Nedbank Cup will allow him to put some kilometres on the legs of his under used senior players. Sono’s rationale is different – he insisted he will be fielding a similar line-up to that which he might on a weekly basis. Consistency and development remain key, and in theory this weekend offers an opportunity to retain both.

A sustained run in the Cup will also help restore faith in a young squad that may have become disillusioned with South African footballing institutions. The first division in particular has been rife with allegations of corrupt refereeing that has left a bad taste in the mouths of those who swear by its competitiveness.

“The long stay is not healthy, but at the same time you cannot force it. I’m not the kind of a person that will go out and bride referees,” Sono said before referencing a recent game.

“If you are in that league, sometimes, not all of them, you can smack a referee.

“Some of them you can see are on an agenda, they are working. At one point I even phoned the selectors, I said: ‘Stop bringing this referee to me, he is after me.’

“You could see the guy was working. It’s January, the schools, you know. Some of us have been in the game for too long, we know when this nonsense starts. Before December, that’s for holiday. January, that’s for the school fees. Only then do we know some of us are going to die.”

From a team with a deep footballing history to one with very little, the Vaal University of Technology Football Club (VUT) will notably make its debut in the round of 32. As the only team to arrive via the fourth tier SAB Regional League, victory would epitomise the clichéd magic of the Cup.

With the draw pitting them against the PSL’s Golden Arrows that’s a big ask – a reality which no one told their coach Stanford Nkoane. Addressing the media this week, he spoke with commanding authority. He showed no sign that he was at all uncomfortable with suddenly falling under a national microscope. When asked if he was intimidated by Steve Komphela’s philosophising, he replied emphatically: “English will not be playing football on the day.” He too harbours ambitions of stretching the club’s run in the competition and using it as a boon in their promotion fight … and there’s little wonder about where he draws his inspiration.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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