Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic kept his eyes fixed on the empty stage. The Orlando Pirates coach appeared transfixed, even though in front of him there was only used confetti and darkness. The soundtrack of triumph that had filled the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban and the spotlight that had added extra shine to the awards and trophies lifted at the Premier Soccer League (PSL) awards on 19 May had subsided.
Sredojevic, however, still seemed captivated by the stage, which now had neither occupants nor songs of glory and trophies. His eyes strayed momentarily – briefly making eye contact while saying goodbye to those passing by on their way out – but returned without fail to the empty stage.
The Serbian coach had spent that evening, as he did the year before, watching other teams lift the trophies they won in the 2018-2019 and 2017-2018 seasons. The Buccaneers were not among those winners. The Soweto giants last strolled on to the PSL awards stage in 2014 to celebrate a trophy they had won under another Serbian, Vladimir Vermezovic, who led them to Nedbank Cup glory.
Pirates’ only “victories” this year were seeing Vincent Pule grace that stage to take home the Absa Premiership Goal of the Season award, while Thembinkosi Lorch walked away with the Footballer of the Season and Absa Premiership Players’ Player of the Season awards. Sredojevic watched the stage obsessively, though, perhaps taking its measurement and imagining his team gracing it.
“We smell that the league is around the corner. You can talk [and make promises of what Pirates can do in the 2019-2020 season], but what speaks more volume is performance and results,” Sredojevic said.
Shaking off the bridesmaid tag
The Buccaneers have finished second behind Mamelodi Sundowns in the Absa Premiership for two seasons in a row under Sredojevic. He turned the team around in his first season as coach, taking it from the sorry state that saw Pirates flirt with relegation to challenging for the championship. Sundowns won the 2017-2018 championship with a game to spare and the following campaign, the Brazilians won it on the last day of the league after the Buccaneers threw away the initiative with the 2-2 draw against Cape Town City at Athlone Stadium in their penultimate league match.
“Finishing second twice has injected us with confidence,” Sredojevic said. “It has shown us that we were close, but the standards have risen. We need to pull up our socks, pull the sleeves, dig deeper and work even harder to make it happen.
“How are we going to make it happen? By improving the standards of our defending to ensure that we concede less than 20 goals, we conceded 24 goals last season. We have to score more than 50 goals, last season we scored 44 goals. We have to turn the draws [12, for joint second place for most draws] into wins and to have a significant improvement in being consistent throughout the season, so that we don’t have to wait for the last game of the season to know our fate or we have a dip in form. With strengthening the team and improving the present players we have, we can jump over the bar that has been set.”
The Buccaneers strengthened their team by signing Zambian winger Austin Muwowo, Malawian international Gabadinho Mhango, South African footballers Siphesihle Ndlovu, Fortune Makaringe, Bongani Sam and Tshegofatso Mabasa, and French goalkeeper Joris Delle. But while there has certainly been progress under Sredojevic, there isn’t tangible proof of that progress. The 57 points Pirates collected last season was two up from their 2017-2018 tally and 24 points more than the paltry 33 they raked up in their disastrous 2016-2017 season.
“Tangible result will only come from winning a trophy. It is around the corner, we just need to continue to work and continue to go in the right direction that we are on,” Sredojevic said. “We have to improve the standards and criteria that have been set with a very high bar. Those two seasons have made us believe and have a strong sense that if we dig deeper, work harder and keep that consistency, success is around the corner.”
Sredojevic continued, “It was very hard as a supporter to look at Pirates being a punching bag and being hit with six [6-1 loss to SuperSport United and 6-0 loss to Mamelodi Sundowns]. We have turned the corner. We are in a firm position of being title contenders and being extremely competitive in every match we play. Last season was a roller-coaster ride. We have pushed our players to believe that they are capable of something great.”
Lessons from the Champions League
The growth under Sredojevic saw Pirates return to CAF Champions League football last year for the first time since reaching the final in 2013. Two years later, they reached the final of the 2015 CAF Confederation Cup and then went on a downward spiral that culminated with them finishing outside the top eight for the first time in the club’s history three seasons ago. The club’s chairman, Irvin Khoza, sent Sredojevic an SOS call all the way from Uganda.
The 49-year-old responded with an emphatic yes and he went about helping the Sea Robbers navigate their way out of troubled waters. The Buccaneers returned to Champions League football with a whimper instead of the bang they promised under a coach who has travelled the length and breadth of Africa. Pirates finished third in a group that featured Esperance de Tunis, Horoya and FC Platinum.
“It was the first time we played in the Champions League after six years. There were two or three players who had played there before,” Sredojevic said. “The 10 games we played have strengthened the team and the players who were playing this competition for the first time.
“Now we know that we need to make Orlando Stadium a fortress. Now most of us know what it’s like when you play away in the Champions League. Before this Champions League, it was I, coach Rhulani [Mokwena], Happy Jele, [Wayne] Sandilands and [Asavela] Mbekile. With the experience that we have, and the players now knowing what’s in store, this is the benefit we got from playing in the Champions League this year.”
Khoza, as PSL chairman, threw down a massive challenge for not only Sredojevic but also other ambitious coaches when he spoke about his wish of seeing two South African clubs face each other in the Champions League, preferably in the final. This year was the first time that the country had two representatives in the group stage of the continent’s premier club competition. While the Buccaneers crashed out in the group stage, Sundowns went as far as the semifinals.
Sailing uncharted waters
These two teams will return to the Champions League to represent South Africa in the upcoming season. The Buccaneers’ road to a second star starts with a trip to Zambia to face Green Eagles over two legs in the preliminary round. If they get past that hurdle, they’re likely to face Angola’s Primeiro de Agosto who lost to eventual winners Esperance in the 2018 Champions League. It’s a tough challenge that will test the Buccaneers’ resolve.
But there will be plenty of motivation to succeed, especially in the Champions League. If the barren trophy cabinet doesn’t do the trick, then their jersey – borrowed from the kit they wore when they conquered the continent in 1995 – should do the trick.
The Ghost were understanding of finishing two seasons without a trophy owing to the desperate state the club was in when Sredojevic took over. But after stabilising things and being busy in the past two August transfer windows, Sredojevic has no choice but to ensure that the Buccaneers are on the stage at the PSL awards next year in May.
“Our chairman has achieved everything; as the chairman of the PSL, bringing the World Cup to Africa, winning the Champions League and every trophy on offer in South Africa,” Sredojevic said. “But there is one unfulfilled dream that personally, together with the people working at the club, we want: to go to the Fifa Club World Cup. This is the only place where our chairman hasn’t been. For that to happen, we have to win the Champions League and strengthen the team in accordance with the criteria that the Champions League demands.
He continued, “We have to continue pushing each other. We push Sundowns and they push us, while the other teams like Bidvest Wits, SuperSport United, Cape Town City and Kaizer Chiefs are also pushing us and we push them. In that healthy football competition, we have thrilling football in the country and we set the bar very high. We want to also be like Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, to have our teams consistently fighting to challenge for the Champions League and have two of our teams in the final.
“For that to happen, all of us we need to push in the same direction because the quality of the competitions we have here shows the competitiveness. They need to deliver the quality that will make us not talk about reaching the final but actually do it and match the north Africans who dominate the Champions League.”