Telkom Knockout Final
"WE HAVE TIO HAVE TO SHOW THE BIG CLUBS THAT WE ARE EQUAL TO THEM."
We speak to the cup-winning history-makers at Baroka FC, who became the first club from Limpopo to win a top-flight trophy as they now set their sights on even greater heights.
It tooktook three consecutive attempts for lowly Baroka FC to eventually gain promotion to South Africa’s National First Division, and another three years before finally making their way up to the Absa Premiership. But even then, they were the laughing stock of South African football as they languished in the relegation zone, only saving their top-flight status via the play-offs after a 15th-place league finish just two years ago. Yet now Bakgaga ba Mphahlele believe they are ready to conquer PSL football after claiming Telkom Knockout victory, the first top-tier trophy in their history.
Just 11 years after they were established, Baroka FC made history after winning December’s Telkom Knockout final, becoming the first club from Limpopo to win a PSL trophy. Against all odds, Bakgaga ba Mphahlele kept clean sheets in their first three matches in the tournament, shutting out Golden Arrows, Mamelodi Sundowns and defending champions Bidvest Wits before beating Orlando Pirates 3-2 in a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw after extra time. “We need to get rid of this mindset that there are big teams in South African soccer – they are big in marketing and support base, but playing wise, not so much,” says jubilant Baroka CEO Morgan Mammila. “This victory came at the right time for us and beating Sundowns and Wits gave us the boost we needed. We need to aim high. We have to have to show the big clubs that we are equal to them. For us, this is a dream come true. We have a chairman [Khurishi Mphahlele] and coach [ Wedson Nyirenda] who dream big – collectively we have a bright future.” Club captain Mduduzi Mdantsane led by example in the final, converting two penalties – one in open play and the first one in the penalty shootout – and feels their cup success will be a major stepping stone for the club going forward. “This Telkom Knockout victory is going to change the perception of how people view this club,” the skipper says. “Before the tournament started, no one believed we could win the cup. The first win against Golden Arrows was our turning point – before that win we were not collecting points in the league and we were beginning to doubt ourselves. But after that first game, that’s when we realised we could do it. We started believing in each other and from there we never looked back. Our confidence was so high, and playing against all these great teams was motivation in itself.” History shows that clubs such as Platinum Stars and Moroka Swallows have won trophies at the beginning of the season, only to then suffer a major slump in form in the league, a fate defender Thabiso Semenya hopes his side will avoid. “The minute you put down the cup after lifting it, you are no longer a champion,” Semenya says. “The most important thing is our performance in the league because if we get relegated to the NFD, we will not be able to defend this cup. We have to focus on the league. It’s all about channeling the focus from one tournament to another. We will be expecting a lot of pressure from teams because when you achieve success you invite pressure, and other teams will now have a go at us because they want to beat us. Winning the cup brings pressure, and it’s up to us how we handle that pressure.”
‘A team of miracles’
Before their Telkom glory, Baroka had been fondly known as the “giant-killers” after knocking Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows out of the 2011 Nedbank Cup before losing to Black Leopards in the semi-finals. The Limpopo outfit was formed in 2007 when two Third Division clubs – Simple Yellows and, ironically, Giant Killers – merged to form Baroka FC, with their impressive 2011 Nedbank Cup run being achieved while the team was still turning out in the third tier of South African football. Following their Nedbank Cup heroics seven years ago, KICK OFF paid the club a visit at their training base in Ngwana Mohube in Lebowakgomo. Upon our arrival, what we found was an ambitious outfit with players from all over the country, and unlike most Second Division sides, Baroka had their own clubhouse where most of the players stayed and were fully kitted for all their training sessions. After winning the league in the 2010/11 season, the club coached by a then 29-year-old Sello Chokoe failed to win promotion to the National First Division after falling short in the play-offs. They would again win the league the following season, but again stumbled at the last hurdle in the play-offs, before finally making it third-time lucky in the 2012/13 campaign as they eventually made it to South Africa’s second-tier. A fourth-place finish in their maiden NFD campaign was followed by a ninth-place finish the following year, before an impressive 2015/16 season, under the tutelage of Kgoloko Thobejane, saw Bakgaga lose just four games all season as they topped the First Division standings – just one point ahead of Highlands Park – to eventually secure an Absa Premiership berth for the first time. “It’s not easy coming through from the Second Division to the NFD and then the PSL, and then winning a cup in your third season in the PSL – that is not easy,” Mammila says. “Some teams have been in the NFD for many years and still find it difficult to come up to the PSL. You have to love this game. You must also take care of the business side of things, and the rest will follow. To be honest with you, if we can outplay bigger teams and beat the PSL champions, then it means we are champions. “We are not bragging, but we are a team of miracles. We are the only team that has
brought a cup to Limpopo. We are a special team and people can say what they want, but we are up for the challenge. You haven’t seen anything yet. Our aim is to compete for all the remaining trophies. We are a new team and we have a sponsor – some teams have never had that.”
Sticking with Thobejane during their maiden campaign in the top-flight, Baroka only survived via the play-offs after finishing second-from-bottom, with their popular coach being replaced three months before the end of last season as McDonald Makhubedu took over, with Doctor Khumalo
"THE MINUTE YOU PUT DOWN THE CUP AFTER LIFTING IT, YOU ARE NO LONGER A CHAMPION."
also overseeing the final two games of the season, as Baroka finished one position better in 14th spot. Before the beginning of the current campaign, former Zambian national team coach Nyirenda was appointed as the permanent coach, with the move proving to be a master-stroke. “I expected to achieve success as soon as I took over as the coach of this team,” Niyrenda says. “You can ask the players and they will tell you what I said – I told them we were going to win the Telkom Knockout or the Nedbank Cup. “At the end it was an emotional and humbling win. I was happy to see how the players played right through the tournament. There are one or two things that were not going well at the beginning of the game against Pirates, but in the end we won.” Replicating that success in the league will be no easy task, yet Nyirenda is confident his side’s good cup form will spill over into the Absa Premiership. “All the teams in the PSL are strong and for us to be where we are now, we have to play very strong teams from Orlando Pirates to Mamelodi Sundowns and Bidvest Wits … but yes, we can do it. Here we are, having won the TKO. We are now looking forward to other competitions. Our target is to finish the season in the top four and from next season, we can conquer the PSL.” In-demand winger Talent Chawapiwa says Baroka’s new coach has brought new impetus into their side, which he believes will help the club to greater heights. “Our new coach brings a different dimension to our game – he is the kind of coach who wants the ball to move with full speed,” Chawapiwa says. “He is all about ball possession and he wants to starve the opponents of the ball. “There are people saying we might end up fighting relegation, but I am not concerned. This season we have more quality and hunger, and players want to achieve. Our coach achieved a lot as a player and now he wants to win as a coach. The story of us fighting relegation is something of the past. Our goal between now and the end of the season is to be in the top eight – that is the least we want to achieve.”