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

The Star Late Edition - - SPORT - LUNGANI ZAMA NJABULO NGIDI NJABULO NGIDI

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.”

LUC EY­MAEL

FADLU DAVIDS

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