AN ODE TO THE BEAU­TI­FUL Birds

Once one of the coun­try’s top three clubs, Moroka Swallows are mov­ing fur­ther into the wilder­ness. Die-hard fan Lu­cas Led­waba weeps for a fallen gi­ant

CityPress - - Sport - – Muku­rukuru Me­dia

H

is­tory, no mat­ter how colour­ful and glo­ri­ous, does not win foot­ball matches. It never has and never will. The story of Moroka Swallows is more than enough proof of this.

Yes­ter­day, Swallows had col­lected only 24 points from 29 games in the ABC Mot­sepe League, and they face a third suc­ces­sive rel­e­ga­tion in three sea­sons to the lower di­vi­sion of South African foot­ball.

The club has been rooted sec­ond from bot­tom in the ABC Mot­sepe League’s Gaut­eng log stand­ings for the bet­ter part of the sea­son, putting paid to any hopes of a re­turn to big time foot­ball.

Who would have imag­ined that dur­ing the year of its 70th an­niver­sary, Swallows would barely be fly­ing, but rather sit on the brink of be­ing for­got­ten and rel­e­gated to the scrap heap of foot­ball his­tory?

Who would have imag­ined that some­day, while its peers such as Or­lando Pi­rates boast ap­pear­ances in CAF Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball fi­nals and con­tinue to be among the top clubs in lo­cal foot­ball, the once Beau­ti­ful Birds would re­sem­ble an old, faded beauty queen who has be­come the use­ful tool of young men who want to test their viril­ity?

In a dif­fer­ent time, this was un­think­able, an unimag­in­able im­pos­si­bil­ity, for this was no or­di­nary club.

Even as I pen this lament for the demise of a brand that was more than just a foot­ball club, but a way of life – a ther­a­peu­tic pack­age of flair and skill that brought so much joy, pride and an es­cape from the harsh re­al­i­ties of life to so many, in­clud­ing fans from the op­po­si­tion – I can al­most feel the vi­bra­tion of the rick­ety grand­stand at Ge­orge Goch and Or­lando sta­di­ums.

Then the voices of the Iziny­oni faith­ful pow­ered into the sky, singing about the Soweto town­ship called Dube, which gave birth to this gi­ant in ma­roon and white. Or about how the time had come for Swallows to rise and shine and, when the chips were down, belt out a song urg­ing on Congo Male­bana to res­cue The Birds with a goal, a feat the scor­ing ma­chine of­ten achieved.

It was the golden age of The Dube Birds – the time of Joel “Ace” Mnini, Fetsi “Chippa Chippa” Mo­latedi, Thomas “Who” Hlong­wane, Aubrey “The Great” Mak­gopela, An­dries “Cost Liv­ing” Mpondo, Mike “Sporo” Man­gena, Sam “Happy Cow” Mnkomo, Noel “Mzala” Cousins and William “Kurra” Makhura. The list is too long to get through, way too long. In those days, fans would blow on bi­cy­cle horns, and whis­tle and sing the praises of the men on the field with tears stream­ing down their faces.

Those tears were not of their own do­ing, for Iziny­oni played an en­ter­pris­ing brand of at­tack­ing foot­ball, dished out with the some­what ar­ro­gant swag­ger and ex­u­ber­ance of care­free town­ship youth, who played the game with such skill and flair as if they were born solely for that pur­pose.

Un­der the stew­ard­ship of the shrewd David “Pine” Cha­beli, Swallows was the breed­ing ground of raw tal­ent scouted from the am­a­teur ranks of town­ships and vil­lages.

It was a club where gems were gath­ered and pol­ished into shin­ing jew­els.

Even fans from op­pos­ing sides ad­mired the Swallows, and play­ers from the op­po­si­tion dreaded the prospect of com­ing up against this bun­dle of en­ergy and skill.

Swallows were never a league cham­pi­onship-win­ning side, but they were al­ways there, hov­er­ing in the top four.

Dur­ing what was ar­guably their most suc­cess­ful pe­riod – be­tween 1980 and 1993 – Swallows twice won the Bob Save Su­per Bowl (1989 and 1991), the Main­stay Cup (1983), the Iwisa Char­ity Spec­tac­u­lar (1992) and fea­tured in many mem­o­rable Cup fi­nals.

Even as their for­tunes dwin­dled in the new mil­len­nium, The Birds man­aged to win the Ned­bank Cup, the Absa Cup and the SAA Supa 8.

But where did it all go wrong? Why are Swallows where they are to­day? There may never be one solid an­swer. But the re­al­ity is that this has been a long time com­ing.

Swallows never man­aged to rein­vent them­selves, even af­ter be­ing given the la­bel Hlala kwa bafi­leyo (Re­main among the dead) in the mid-90s, they bat­tled rel­e­ga­tion sea­son af­ter sea­son.

Although the club un­der­went a form of re­vival in the early 2000s un­der Gavin Hunt and Vik­tor Bon­darenko, they never fully re­cov­ered.

When the likes of Pi­rates, Chiefs, Sun­downs and even new­com­ers such as Su­perS­port United were adopt­ing mod­ern trends of run­ning a club, build­ing solid devel­op­ment struc­tures, tech­ni­cal teams, a wide net­work of scout­ing for tal­ent, go­ing on ag­gres­sive drives to ac­quire spon­sor­ship and re­brand them­selves, Swallows re­mained stuck in a time warp.

Run from the cell­phone of one Leon Prins, the man fin­gered by fans for the club’s demise, Swallows be­came some­what of an old-age home, where out-of-con­tract, faded play­ers look­ing for a re­tire­ment pack­age could play out their last few sea­sons. No more was it the launch­ing pad for young tal­ent.

When other clubs hired top, ex­pe­ri­enced coaches, Swallows man­age­ment ap­peared to rel­ish hav­ing medi­ocre, un­proven jour­ney­men such as Craig Rosslee, Ian Gorowa and Euro­pean Rainer Zoebel on their bench.

The re­sult was an in­dif­fer­ent string of re­sults and a brand of foot­ball that was so unin­spir­ing, the fans stayed away.

For most of their last sea­sons in the top flight, Swallows played to empty stands at Dob­sonville Sta­dium, a venue in the heart of Soweto – the an­ces­tral and spir­i­tual home of the Beau­ti­ful Birds.

In the board­room, the mi­nor­ity share­hold­ers and Prins bick­ered over con­trol of the club. Play­ers com­plained of hav­ing to run on zero as the club failed to reg­u­larly pay salaries. There was still hope when Swallows got rel­e­gated from the PSL in July 2015; hope that man­age­ment and all in­volved would ap­pre­ci­ate the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and get to­gether to map a way for­ward.

But no. They at­tempted to buy the sta­tus of Free State Stars for a re­ported whop­ping R80 mil­lion, a short-cut that would not guar­an­tee an end to the prob­lems that landed the club in the Na­tional First Di­vi­sion in the first place.

Per­haps that money would have been best used to re­build the club over a five-year pe­riod, and en­sure its re­turn to the PSL.

As they say in Se­pedi, “O se bone go akalala ga bo nong, go ya fase ke ga yona”. Loosely trans­lated, this means no mat­ter how high a bird can soar, it still has to re­turn to the ground to feed and drink.

Swallows have re­turned to the ground and it ap­pears highly un­likely that the Birds will take to the skies and soar again.

PHOTO: GALLO IMAGES / CITY PRESS AR­CHIVES

MEM­O­RIES Ben­jamin Reed of Kaizer Chiefs fights for the ball with Moroka Swallows’ An­dries “Chaka Chaka” Mpondo in this 1993 file pic­ture

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