EYES ON BIG PRIZE
‘Underdogs’ Maritzburg looking to topple Stars and bring home their first trophy ever, but there’s no quit in Ea Lla Koto Leopards going for the kill in their fight for promotion to elite league
AHEAD of a cup final, the nerves in a team are strung tighter than usual. Players often withdraw themselves into quiet corners, dreading being the guy who lets the team down. Managers fiddle with their notes, desperate to be the difference between glory and despair.
Deep in the heart of Maritzburg, the ‘Team of Choice’ has been quietly building towards the Nedbank Cup Final against Free State Stars tomorrow. It is a first final for the bulk of the squad, save for three players who have been there.
“It is a massive occasion for the club. It’s historic,” coach Fadlu Davids pointed out.
Davids, a former striker who has become twice a cult hero at Harry Gwala Stadium, has been central to the transformation from puzzlers to pursuers of top prizes. He was once celebrated as a goal-poacher for the club, but now he is lauded for his ability to turn a young team into an enterprising brand of football.
“Of course this season has been a success. We have had our best season, but we are still building. It is important for us to take opportunities like this game, because there is a huge difference between making a final and winning it,” Davids pointed out.
“We are underdogs for this final,” Davids added flatly.
“We have to be underdogs. We have never played a game of this magnitude in our history, but Free State Stars have been there before.
“It is not that I prefer to be underdogs; it is what it is.”
The underdog tag suits United and their city, a place of scrappers and hustlers. Along the way to this august occasion, United have suffered deep heartache, losing two bright stars along the way.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Davids recalled.
“We have kept them in our thoughts and prayers as a team, and we know that they will be there for us on Saturday,” he said of Mlondi Dlamini and Luyanda Ntshangase, who have both passed away over the course of an unforgettable 2017/18 campaign.
“We have to play for them, too, and that is extra motivation. Winning would be a great way to finish off this season, and then kick on from there,” Davids added.
Kicking on will depend a lot on what players are retained, but Davids said he and the club management had already spoken to a clutch of youngsters whose skills have become flames to the moths that do the dirty work of serenading for big clubs.
“We want to keep this group together, and the encouraging thing is that none of our youngsters want to go to the so-called ‘Big Three’ and sit on the bench. If they get overseas offers, we will BLACK LEOPARDS’ coach Joel Masutha has murderous intentions in the controversial promotion play-offs that are being fought on and off the field.
Lidoda Duvha started the play-offs with a 1-0 win over Platinum Stars in Thohoyandou on Wednesday. But in their training session on Tuesday morning, not stand in their way, but they all want to play their local football here,” Davids enthused.
He himself has also committed his flourishing future to the club, and that continuity is crucial in ensuring that this incredible season is not a once-off.
Footballers are creatures of curious habits, but it is within that repetition that they find the courage to scale mountains previously deemed impossible. Tomorrow, Davids will take his United side to their biggest mountain yet, and he will ask them to find the conviction to stamp their authority on this final match.
He will ask his side to dream once more, to play for those brothers who cannot play anymore, and to play for a city that has been handed the chance to dream. He will ask his team to reach deep and prove that winners can emerge from the unlikeliest of places. Leopards were preparing to take on Ajax Cape Town who had finished 15th in the Absa Premiership. That changed after arbitration proceedings found the Urban Warriors in contravention of Premier Soccer League (PSL) and Fifa rules for fielding Tendai Ndoro, making Ajax the third club the Zimbabwean played for in one season.
Platinum Stars, Polokwane City
IF THE Nedbank Cup final was a movie, Fadlu Davids would be the hero with his good looks and likeable personality and Luc Eymael would be the villain with the way he courts controversy. The French-laced English the Belgian coach speaks with fits the villain look. But in the eyes of Free State Stars’ fans and management, Eymael is a hero. He has transformed Ea Lla Koto from a team that consistently fought to avoid relegation to finishing sixth in the league and now they are one match away from winning a trophy for the first time in over two decades. For Stars to be champions, they have to get past Maritzburg United and SuperSport United were awarded three points and a 3-0 win over Ajax in the matches the Cape side fielded Ndoro. That resulted in Ajax finishing the season with 24 points, moving them down from 15th place to last place and automatically relegated to the first division. Dikwena received a lifeline by moving to 15th place and qualify for the play-offs. Semi-finals: Maritzburg United 3-1 Mamelodi Sundowns @ Harry Gwala Stadium; Kaizer Chiefs 0-2 Free State Stars @ Moses Mabhida Stadium Quarter-finals: Maritzburg United 2-1 Bloemfontein Celtic @ Harry Gwala Stadium; Ubuntu Cape Town 1-1 Free State Stars @ Athlone Stadium, Stars won 4-2 on penalty shoot-out Last 16: Royal Eagles 1-2 Maritzburg United @ Princess Magogo Stadium; Free State Stars 2-1 Chippa United @ Goble Park Last 32: Swallows FC 1-3 Maritzburg United @ Dobsonville Stadium; Super Eagles 1-2 Free State Stars @ Goble Park tomorrow in the Nedbank Cup final at Cape Town Stadium. Luckily for Eymael this isn’t a movie where the good guy always wins, life and football has no such rules. In fact, more often than not in football and life the good guy tends to finish last.
“You can never please everyone,” Eymael said. “That’s the main thing about life. You can be the nicest girl and the nicest man in the world, and I am not that because I am old now I don’t look that good, but even if you’re the most beautiful person in the world – you will not be loved by everyone. You will always have people who are jealous and people who will criticise you. For me what is the
But those play-offs almost didn’t happen with Ajax filing an urgent interdict to stop them from going ahead and also the setting aside of the ruling of Advocate W. Mokhari in the arbitration. The play-offs went ahead with judgement reserved and a ruling on the matter likely to be made today. While that sideshow was going ahead, Leopards still had to do the job on the field, which most important thing is that my players are happy and the board is happy. If the fans are happy, then I am happy.”
Eymael comes across like a nightmare to work with. He barks instructions like a mad man and isn’t afraid to cut his own players down to size if he feels they aren’t doing their job. But he also does a good job in building those players up, making them believe that nothing is impossible.
“I am an iron fist inside a velvet glove,” Eymael chuckled.
This iron fist is on the verge of punching Stars to new frontiers should they win the Nedbank Cup final. Not only would the club get a cool R7-million cheque, lift a major trophy for the first time since 1994, they would also represent South Africa in the CAF Confederation Cup next season.
“For me it would be an honour to go back to the Confederation Cup,” Eymael said. “I didn’t know that Free State Stars had never played in that competition. It would be an honour to take Free State Stars there for the first time. I don’t know why people (in this country) complain when they play in Africa. The CAF Champions League and Confederation Cup are the highest level. Why would you complain about playing at the highest level? How can you not take this competition seriously?”
Eymael continued: “I agree with Pitso (Mosimane) in this regard when he says that we need those competitions.” they did by beating Dikwena and will now visit Jomo Cosmos at the Vosloorus Stadium on Sunday.
“We just have to kill everybody,” Masutha said. “I know that Cosmos are very, very tough. People might underestimate them, I know Cosmos. They have quality players. I think they only lost one match in Vosloorus. They are a very difficult side.”