Pirates looking to swipe a third title
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With a brand new, five-year, US$200-million television deal, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League strides ahead into further unchartered heights at the weekend, with the start of the 2012/13 season. On the back of the successful hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, the country’s professional league continues its prosperity, evidenced by a frenzied pre-season transfer market.

The legacy of the imposing stadiums built for the 2010 finals provide a sophisticated backdrop for a popular product, which has shown an increase in attendances, a better profile of imported players and coaches, and a willingness by broadcasters to shelve out big money to screen the games. Here are some prospects for the new campaign, which gets underway on Friday.

The defending champions
Orlando Pirates have won the last two league titles, both of them in dramatic circumstances on the final day of the season. The double success came despite two coaching changes and frequent speculation over the possible departure of star players to clubs in Europe. Former Dutch World Cup hero Ruud Krol was not offered a contract renewal despite handing Pirates the 2011 title after a decade long hiatus from the medal podium, and his Brazilian replacement Julio Cesar Leal, who took his country to success at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Australia in 1993, lasted but six months. Augusto Palacios, a former Peruvian international, was moved from his long-standing job in charge of Pirates’ youth academy and proved popular among the players as they put the tumult on the bench aside to retain their title. He has since been rewarded with a change in the status of his tenure from caretaker to permanent.

This is likely to be the last season at the club for 34-year-old Benni McCarthy, South Africa’s record goal scorer who returned home last August after more than a decade at clubs in Europe. He proved a talismanic influence, netting two vital goals on the last day of the season to hand the club the title. He will again be central to Pirates’ plans, backed up Thulasizwe Mbuyane. Pirates have former Nigeria international Onyekachi Okonkwo back but have sold Isaac Chansa, who helped Zambia win January’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations, to China.

The contenders
Every year, there is the same trio of perennial challengers. Along with Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Mamelodi Sundowns are always heavily fancied and with good reason too. Chiefs hold the record for the most championships and Sundowns have won seven titles in the last 21 years. But for Chiefs, who have the biggest legion of fans, their last success came seven years ago while Sundowns were last crowned champions in 2007, despite investing millions in their squad. Sundowns owner Patrice Motsepe, a mining billionaire, is known as the ‘Roman Abramovich of Africa’, spending millions on top talent for his club. But, as yet, it has not brought the desired silverware. Last season he enticed Johan Neeskens to coach the side but again it proved a barren campaign, with only a losing cup final appearance to show for the investment. But that has not deterred the Pretoria-based club, who have again bought liberally and stuck with the taciturn Neeskens for the new campaign. New signings include recently capped strikers Eleazor Rodgers and Edward Manqele, plus Alje Schut from Dutch club FC Utrecht.

Kaizer Chiefs have appointed Stuart Baxter, former national team coach of both South Africa and Finland, to take charge of their increasingly desperate quest for a championship. They also broke the domestic transfer record with the US$800 000 signing of Morgan Gould from SuperSport United and partnered him with lanky Mulomowandau Mathoho from Bloemfontein Celtic in central defence. They have also brought back Siboniso Gaxa from Lierse in Belgium.

SuperSport United won a trio of titles from 2008 to 2010 and ran Pirates close in the last campaign, most of it on the back of the charisma of long-standing coach Gavin Hunt and some astute buying. They have sought to keep up this formula and new signings include Bevan Fransman from Hapoel Tel Aviv and Senegalese defender Mor Diouf.

The outsiders
Bidvest Wits, Bloemfontein Celtic, Free State Stars and Platinum Stars are all clubs who have been more active than customary in the market. Wits had a torrid last season and were facing relegation right up until the last weeks of the campaign. In response, they appointed a new coach in Antonio Lopez, the Spaniard who was national coach of Bolivia from 1996/97, and signed 12 new players for the season.

Free State Stars have outdone that even with 18 new signings, although the majority have no previous top flight experience but have been spotted in the minor leagues. Platinum Stars, whose club are owned by the Bafokeng tribe whose Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace was a 2010 venue, have 13 new players. Celtic have bought Ghana midfielder John Arwuah and Botswana striker Joel Mogorosi.

Players to watch
Last season Moroka Swallows were surprise runners-up and resultantly had their coach Gordon Igesund enticed away to take charge of the South African national side. His replacement Zeca Marques has changed little and again put his faith in 34-year-old Siyabonga Nomvete at the helm of his side. He was both top scorer and Player of the Season at the end of the last term. Pretenders to his crown are Manqele (Sundowns), Lehlohonolo Majoro (Chiefs) and Bradley Grobler, bought home by Ajax Cape Town after one season in Turkey

Have your say

Will this be the year that Kaizer Chiefs end a seven year drought and take the South African Premier League? Or could it be a year for an outside team?