South Africa’s post-FIFA World Cup™ legacy last season was a thrilling exhibition of domestic football that culminated in a dramatic last-day finish. Now, some 10 weeks, later the protagonists all line up again for the start of a new Premier League campaign, fuelled by a wave of expectation as the domestic scene seeks to continue its cause of becoming Africa’s most desired footballing destination.
Like many leagues around the world, South African soccer is dominated by a handful of top clubs. Supersport United has been the recent success story, while Orlando Pirates won the title last year only in the final minutes of the season as they managed to take the 2011 championship on goal difference from Ajax Cape Town. However, Pirates, Mamelodi Sundown and Kaizer Chiefs have been flexing their muscles in the pre-season transfer market and are hoping to dominate once again as the new South African season kicks off on Friday, 12 August.
The defending champions
Pirates snapped an eight-year drought in taking the last league championship but then drew criticism when they failed to renew the contract of the coach, Dutch FIFA World Cup™ legend Ruud Krol. After three years, Krol had finally delivered the title – plus two cup trophies in a single season – but was not offered a new deal. Pirates instead decided to take a new, Brazilian direction and brought in Julio Cesar Leal, who has previous experience coaching in South African football.
The reigning champions spent recent weeks trimming their vast squad ruthlessly, but were quickest to pounce when the 33-year-old Benni McCarthy announced he wanted to come home after 14 years in Europe. Although McCarthy’s fitness and form are unknown quantities, he remains South Africa’s most successful footballer, and Pirates have outbid the rest to make him the country's highest-paid domestic-based sportsman. He has a fine team around him and should be guaranteed plenty of chances. Pivotal to Pirates’ success was the midfield duo of Andile Jali and Oupa Manyisa, who look likely to play a final season in South Africa before being bought by a European-based club.
Kaizer Chiefs are South Africa’s best supported side but their fans are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of a title, the last having been secured in 2005. They were heavily panned over the past years for being too timid in the transfer market, but they have made amends this season by signing Bernard Parker from FC Twente in the Netherlands and young defenders Tefu Mashamaite and Keegan Ritchie, both of whom have won recent call-ups for the national team.
Perhaps their boldest buy was AmaZulu's Lehlohonolo Majoro, who was last season’s runner-up in the goalscoring charts. Mamelodi Sundowns, meanwhile, have appointed Johan Neeskens as coach, keeping up their annual turnover in the dugout, but they have not spent anything near what they did over the last four years. Ajax Cape Town lost their inspirational coach Foppe de Haan to retirement and key midfielder Thulani Serero to their namesakes in Amsterdam. SuperSport, who won three successive titles from 2008 to 2010, were a flop last season, but they have stuck with coach Gavin Hunt and added six experienced players to their roster.
Bloemfontein Celtic finished a surprise fifth last season in a dream campaign for rookie coach Clinton Larsen, and they have worked hard to try and enforce their squad for a serious tilt at a first-ever title this season. BiDVest Wits have boldly blended many teenagers into their squad over the last 18 months and could now begin to see the dividends of this bold policy.
McCarthy is grabbing all the headlines, but there is some scepticism centring on his current fitness and hunger. Pirates have also bought Shamieg Doutie and Lizo Mjempu from Ajax Cape Town, Rudolph Bester from Maritzburg United and Bafana Bafana centre-half Siyabonga Sangweni from Lamontville Golden Arrows. Mamelodi Sundowns have turned to other African destinations for their new stock, bringing in two Nigerian youth internationals, Solomon Okpako and Gbolahan Salami, and Simba Sithole from CAPS United in Zimbabwe.
Other intriguing signings include SuperSport’s addition of Ghanaian hardman John Arwuah and tall Senegalese striker Mame Niang, who has scored in each of their pre-season games. Newly-promoted Jomo Cosmos have kept up their reputation for importing from all corners of the continent with new signings including two Ethiopians and Niger international Issa Modibo Sidibe.
Players to watch
A rock-solid defence was the catalyst for Pirates last title, and Rooi Mahamutsa and Happy Jele were unsung heroes. The battle for goals between McCarthy and Parker could be overshadowed by Nyasha Mushekwi of Mamelodi Sundowns. After years of a league dominated by midfield stars, it is the forwards who could be at the forefront this campaign.