A new television rights deal, worth over $100m for the next five
seasons, promises lucrative returns for the 16 clubs in South
Africa's Premier Soccer League and the hope of a much improved
product for fans. With focus in South Africa now starkly on
football, as momentum and excitement bubbles furiously ahead of the
hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, the league looks on the brink
of a boom period.
Cable channel SuperSport is spending 1.6 billion South African rand to screen more than 100 Premier League matches per-season over the next five years, and has sublet a further 100 games to the national broadcaster SABC. It means saturation coverage for the league and increased outlet for a growing list of corporate sponsors, who are making the domestic game richer and allowing clubs expansive plans.
An example of the new found status is the ability of top clubs to now import talent from countries other than those on the African continent. Reigning champions Mamelodi Sundowns have just stumped up a two-year contract for Chilean international Jorge Acuna, once on the books at Dutch Eredivisie side Feyenoord. For their part, Kaizer Chiefs have bought Austrian goalkeeper Markus Bockser to strengthen their squad as they seek to rebound from their worst-ever season.
Previously Africa was almost exclusively an exporter of talent,
with only a rare Brazilian or two heading in the other direction.
Although this situation is changing somewhat, the South African PSL
has seen several of its stars head north in recent weeks.
Chiefs have lost goalkeeper Rowen Fernandez and stylish midfielder Siyabonga Nkosi to German outfit Arminia Bielefeld, while their arch-rivals Orlando Pirates have sold captain Benedict Vilakazi to Aalborg in Sweden. They also let three more players go to clubs in Sweden, Switzerland and Tunisia, which looks to have considerably weakened their midfield.
The leading contenders
Sundowns, Chiefs and Pirates represent the trio who have traditionally dominated the chase for league honours in South Africa. Sundowns have won the last two top flight titles, while the Chiefs claimed the two before that after unseating the Pirates as champions.
Indeed, since 1995, only one team outside of the 'big three' has clinched gold. That distinction went to Cape Town club Santos, who are run on a shoe string budget and who, this coming season, are expected to focus more on avoiding relegation than challenging for for honours.
Sundowns start the new campaign as the runaway favourites, even
though they have barely had any time off since the end of the last
season in May. The Pretoria-based side, who have won the title
eight times in the last two decades, are owned by mining magnate
Patrice Motsepe, whose deep pockets and intense interest in the
day-to-day running of the club draw cheeky comparisons with Roman
Abramovich. He might not have the same cash reserves as the Russian
tycoon but Motsepe keeps up the champagne lifestyle, flying to some
of his team's games in a private jet or arriving at the stadium
in a stately car surrounded by a bevy of bodyguards.
Motsepe has told coach Gordon Igesund that Sundowns must retain the championship, win a major trophy and also qualify for the last eight of the CAF Champions League 2008 if he is to keep his job. It will be a tough ask for Igesund, South African-born but a former striker with Austria Vienna, who has remarkably won four PSL titles inside the last decade - all with different clubs.
He joined Sundowns early last season and sharpened them up into a deadly unit, evidence of which was shown by a run of 11 successive wins just after the halfway point of the campaign, which blew away the hopes of all of their challengers. "I am quite satisfied about how things have been shaping up," Igesund says. "We will unveil a couple of new players that we are bringing to the club in the next weeks and I promise that our supporters will be happy."
Waiting to bring him down a peg or two are the other 15 clubs in the division. Pirates have kept faith with their Congolese-born coach Kalambay Mutombo, whose position had been under pressure at the end of last season. But in his favour is the fact that Mutombo has brought a measure of discipline to a club whose playboy stars and wild off-field antics filled the pages of the tabloid press. The Buccaneers, as they are known, play an entertaining brand of football but are a touch on the lightweight side.
Chiefs finished in ninth place last season, which led to the departure of their German coach Ernst Middendorp, In his place, they have re-hired Muhsin Ertugral, whose previous spell at their reins also ended in a ninth place finish in the standings. But Chiefs, who still command the biggest legion of fans in the country, have high hopes that a second spell for Ertugral might prove more successful.
Clubs like Ajax Cape Town, Bloemfontein Celtic, Moroka Swallows, Platinum Stars and SuperSport United will also have lofty aspirations, but in reality may not have the strength in depth for the rigours of a long campaign. What might work in their favour is the plan to halt the league for six weeks in January and part of February, while South Africa's national team compete at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in Ghana. This will afford under strength squads a chance to refresh and work through any potential injury crisis.
Officials are also hoping the new glitzy image of the Premier League will cause an increase in match attendances.