For the first time in decades, there is an overwhelming favourite to win the Premier Soccer League championship in South Africa . Mamelodi Sundowns, who won the title in May for the first time in six years, have fast emerged as the hot tip for success after successful forays into the transfer market have boosted the look of their squad and left the rest of the 16-team league looking on in envy. Sundowns, who play their home matches in Pretoria, but are based in nearby Johannesburg, took the title from Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs last season.
Chiefs and Pirates have been the the two dominant sides in the history of the country's professional game but Sundowns' glitzy image and star-studded squad have quickly turned them into 'Chelsea of the south'. The comparison with the English champions is inevitable given that Sundowns' new owner, mining magnate Patrice Motsepe, has spent liberally on the club, particularly in attracting new players. While the level of cash outlay may be just small change for Chelsea, it has drawn the inevitable comparison with Roman Abramovich.
See the first round of league fixtures in South Africa
Sundowns scoff at suggestions that they might be buying the title but they now have almost two international players vying for every position. Included in their squad are players from Cameroon, France, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, giving a real 'United Nations' feel to their team. Striker William Correa has recently been added to the ranks from Le Havre, while a South African record-equaling fee was paid to neighbours SuperSport United for forward Lungisani Ndlela, a South African international.
Two heads better than one
The combination of coaches Miguel Gamondi and Neil Tovey seems to work well for the Sundowns - Gamondi, from Argentina, is the tactical expert and Tovey, captain of the South Africa's 1996 African Nations Cup winning side, the supreme motivator. Pre-season form has consolidated Sundowns' position as league favourites although the Kaizer Chiefs have high hopes of their own. It will be their second season under German coach Ernst Middendorp, who struggled in the initial season because of a lack of depth in his squad.
Chiefs are banking on veteran South African striker Shaun Bartlett to drive their title quest with his goal scoring acumen. He returned to the country at the end of his contract with Premiership side Charlton Athletic. Chiefs also scooped the other top clubs in securing the signature of Siyabonga Nkosi from Bloemfontein Celtic, arguably the best playmaking midfielder on the local circuit in the last decade.
Orlando Pirates still have a massive squad, heavy on ball juggling midfielders but without a sharp spear up front and desperately lacking experience in the back four. Their new coach Milutin Sredojevic, who comes from Serbia, has battled in the early stages of the season with a series of disappointing results in the CAF African Champions League.
Moroka Swallows, another of the grand old clubs from Soweto, seek to also stay up with the 'big guns' having also added up their squad in the off-season. Their coach Gavin Hunt is highly qualified but it might be another season or two before they are real contenders.
The new season starts on Wednesday with Santos and Bloemfontein Celtic opening the 2006/2007 campaign in Cape Town. The season comes with great anticipation as the excitement surrounding the hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ is mounting with each passing week.