European coaches target Premiership medal
A European coach will raise the South Premiership trophy tomorrow whatever the outcome in a three-team title race between Ajax Cape Town, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. Foppe de Haan guides leaders Ajax, Dutch compatriot Ruud Krol bosses the second-placed Pirates and Serb Vladimir Vermezovic pulls the strings at outsiders Chiefs.
Ajax have 59 points, Pirates 57 and Chiefs 56, going into the final round of the most thrilling championship chase since the Premiership began in 1996 and the destiny of the trophy could come down to goal difference.
Should youthful Ajax win at home against bottom-half Maritzburg United they become South African champions for the first time having finished runners-up to SuperSport United three years ago. But any other result at Cape Town Stadium, the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ venue in the shadow of Table Mountain, could open the door for Soweto giants Pirates or Chiefs provided they collect maximum points.
Pirates seem more likely to do so as they host lowly Golden Arrows while Chiefs are away to draw specialists AmaZulu, both of which hailing from Durban.
The final-round tension does not stop at the top as Moroka Swallows must win away to relegated Mpumalanga Black Aces to be sure of finishing above Vasco da Gama and dodging play-offs to retain their Premiership status.
Jomo Cosmos and Bay United meet Sunday and the winners replace Aces by gaining promotion to the Premiership, while the losers join Black Leopards, Thanda Royal Zulu and Vasco or Swallows to fight for another place.
De Haan, a 67-year-old with silver hair and a deep tan, has transformed Ajax in less than two seasons from a kick-and-rush outfit to an easy-on-the-eye side that passes its way to success. He retires after the Maritzburg game to spend more time with his family in the Netherlands and success would be especially sweet as his three-decade coaching CV has one distinct gap - no championship winners medal.
"Our destiny is in our hands. I feel like I have the wind firmly in my back and that is a real nice feeling," he said ahead of the clash with Maritzburg, who thumped Ajax 3-0 in the first round but are generally poor travellers.
Ajax CEO George Comitis lauded De Haan: "When Foppe arrived he said we did not play football. We were crucified by the media when he changed things, but it has become his team and his brand of football."
Krol, a FIFA World Cup runner-up with the Netherlands win 1974 and 1978, is now 62 and senses a glimmer of hope after seeing his team recently surrender a league lead they held for much of the second half in the August-to-May season.
"We have to win but our fate also depends on what other teams do. We have to stay positive, we have to keep fighting," stressed the Dutchman credited with turning the Buccaneers from a bunch of individuals into a cohesive unit.
"The dream is over," admitted Vermezovic after a 2-0 loss at Mamelodi Sundowns a few weeks ago. But a 4-0 thrashing of visiting Ajax led to a revision: "We have a slight chance now."
Apart from the 10m rand ($1.46m/€1.02m) winners cheque, the team topping the table qualifies for the 2012 CAF Champions League which offers an even bigger first prize.