Chiefs hold South African hearts

Kaizer Chiefs have traditionally made a habit of climbing onto the winners' podium, but such is their enduring popularity that even a meager total of just two league titles in the last 12 years seems to have done South Africa's most well-supported club very little harm.

Chiefs certainly have high hopes of ending that barren streak this season, but even without a cabinet full of silverware, they continue to attract legions of fans and fill stadiums wherever they go.

There is, quiet simply, a magical quality about AmaKhosi (The Chiefs), the side whose colours have now dominated the terraces in South African football for more than 30 years. The Chiefs are, as a result, a commercial success story, attracting a phalanx of sponsors and making a great deal of money from its merchandise operations.

In South Africa, you can buy an official Kaizer Chiefs car on your official Kaizer Chiefs credit card, and if not confident in your own driving ability, even take out an official Kaizer Chiefs funeral policy at the same time!

There is the official drink, the mobile phone logo and, naturally, the replica strips that sell well with their distinctive black and gold colours The club even has its own glossy monthly magazine, every edition of which sells more than 40,000 copies, rivaling the circulation of magazines covering the entire South African soccer scene.

The magic of Chiefs is their position in the psyche of the population. The club was formed at the height of repressive apartheid legislation in South Africa and always presented itself as a hip, modern and funky team, an inspirational vision that fitted in with the mood of the times.

In the 1970s, their players sported the 'afro' hairstyle and bell-bottomed trousers in keeping with the fashion of the day, thumbing their noses at staid conventions.

At a time when black South Africa was attempting to break free from its shackles, the Chiefs were among the first organs of success that proved it could be done.

When apartheid on the football pitch broke down, they were the first black side to beat a white team, a powerful psychological boost at the time for the downtrodden majority. Chiefs were also among the first to hire a foreign coach, Englishman Eddie Lewis, who first worked for the club in the mid-1970s and later had four separate spells at the helm.

Stars emerge
Chiefs were also responsible for bringing to the fore a generation and more of stars on the South African scene. Sadly, most will not be known outside their own borders, victims of the apartheid-enforced isolation which meant they could not play elsewhere on the continent.

However, the likes of Shaka Ngcobo, Ace Ntsoelengoe and Marks Maponyane did succeed in moving overseas: Ngcobo played at Penarol in Uruguay, Ntsoelengoe for more than a decade in the USA and Maponyane in Portugal.

Indeed, Ntsoelengoe was arguably the greatest footballer ever produced by South Africa, with more than 200 league and cup goals in his career and a succession of domestic and foreign trophies. The Americans inducted him into their Soccer Hall of Fame, the only African to have achieved this distinction, a year before his sad death at the age of 50.

Over the last decade, Chiefs has been more synonymous with players such as Doctor Khumalo, Donald Khuse, John Moshoeu and Neil Tovey, the first post-apartheid captain of South Africa who played more than 500 league and cup matches, still a national record.

Continuing their record as trend setters, Chiefs were South Africa's first representatives in African club competition, but lost to Zamalek of Egypt in 1983 on the away goals rule after extra time. For several years after that, they refused for to participate, claiming the African adventures were too costly and brought little in return in terms of financial rewards. It took the pressure of years of sustained criticism before Chiefs took the plunge again, a decision that was rewarded when they won the 2001 edition of the African Cup Winners' Cup.

They beat InterClube of Angola in the final and along the way scored impressive victories over the likes of Tunisia's Club Africain and Ismaili of Egypt.

It is, to date, their only continental title but building the Chiefs brand around Africa means that the club is likely to be involved more regularly in the future.

Kaizer Motaung, the Chief of Chiefs
In 1967, the youthful Kaizer Motaung went from Soweto to play for Atlanta Chiefs in the North American Soccer League. He was named 'Rookie of the Year' in his first season, sparkling a sense of pride among the downtrodden black population of South Africa that turned him into an overnight sporting legend.

He was also a member of the Orlando Pirates and when he was not playing in the USA, he came back to perform for his club. However, in 1969, Motaung started his own side to play friendly games against his friends' teams. Before the launch of professional soccer in 1971, he formed a team to play exhibition matches; 'stake games' where a promoter put up money for the teams and the winner went home with the cash.

On January 7, 1970, having broken from Pirates, the Kaizer Chiefs were formally created, headed by team-mates who had also been suspended as 'rebels' by Pirates.

For the next year, this new team toured the country and played in various knockout competitions.

With the advent of professional soccer, they won the first-ever national cup in 1971 and by 1974 were league champions. Motaung was a player, coach and managing director and today is still at the helm of an empire that has grown from humble origins.