‘Moroka Swallows’ fly back into the big league

One important element was missing when The Dube Birds made their much-anticipated return to the professional football ranks in the opening round of the GladAfrica Championship.

Everything in and outside the Dobsonville Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, screamed Moroka Swallows on Saturday 17 August. There was the big maroon bus – emblazoned with the historic name on the side and the famous monicker “The Birds” on the front – parked near the main entrance, next to the tunnel that leads to the dressing rooms and on to the pitch.

The walls of that tunnel remain a haven for The Birds, adorned with pictures of players from the club’s different eras. The numerous fans were resplendent in club colours, their replica jerseys telling the story of this grand belle of South African football. 

Those close to the new regime looked suave in long-sleeved, white golf shirts with a flock of birds printed on the chest. The rest wore faded, worn-out shirts with the logos of the team’s different sponsors over time – Total, VW and Hyundai – giving away their age. 

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The players wore a white strip with maroon trimmings. It was Moroka Swallows all right. Only not quite, according to the logo on the sleeve. Ahead of the kickoff, club legends from various eras and former stars of clubs such as Orlando Pirates expressed their concern.

“This could spell trouble,” KK Lentsoane, who played for The Birds in the 1980s, said to Walter Mabeba and James “Killer” Mkhwanazi on seeing the team sheet. It said Maccabi FC instead of Moroka Swallows. “I don’t think these people will take kindly to this.”

Walking into the stadium, some fans were clearly unaware that the club’s name change was yet to be approved. “The Birds are back. Our club has been revived,” one said excitedly as he walked towards the gate.

17 August 2019: Swallows captain Lebohang Mokoena received the loudest cheers when the names of the club’s starting XI were called out ahead of their first match in the GladAfrica Championship.

‘This is not Swallows, maaan!’

It could have been that fans just didn’t care or were aware of the situation but chose to ignore it and instead embrace their return to the big league. Swallows’ fall from grace had been spectacular. The team slumped all the way down to the SAB League – the fourth tier of South African football – after successive relegations from the Premier Division, the First Division and the ABC Motsepe League. 

When the stadium announcer read out the line-up and introduced the home team as Maccabi, there was not a single dissenting voice. Instead, the spectators cheered as every name was read out. Fans responded to the name of captain Lebohang “Cheeseboy” Mokoena – the hugely talented former Pirates star, who also played for Mamelodi Sundowns and was capped at different levels of the national team – with a level of excitement reserved for players of his pedigree. 

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Jeers quickly replaced the glee, though, as the team huffed and puffed about. The disjointed defence made schoolboy errors against TS Sporting that prompted one fan to shout, “This is not Swallows, maaan,” and another to lament that, “We do not have a team here, these boys are confused.” 

But when Thapelo Tshilo’s powerful header from a corner kick rattled the net and the veteran defender celebrated by flapping his arms, mimicking a bird’s flight, all was forgiven as the fans celebrated excitedly before breaking into the old Swallows song, Ibambeni we Bafana

The club’s messiah, Panyaza Lesufi, the Gauteng member of the executive council for education who has fought tooth and nail in recent years to see the club revived, watched from the presidential suite. He was in the company of Swallows royalty ranging from “Shakes” Mashaba and Trott Moloto to Sipho Xulu, as well as actor and diehard club fan Magic Hlatshwayo and sympathisers of The Dube Birds such as Jomo Sono and Arthur Zwane.

17 August 2019: Swallows royalty and former Bafana Bafana coach ‘Shakes’ Mashaba was among the footballing legends who attended the game.

Emotionally and financially draining 

At the end of the match that ended in a 1-1 draw, Lesufi described Tshilo’s celebration as heart-warming. “I am teary-eyed. I did not want to come to this game because I knew I would be emotional. For the team to be up and running, I am happy and now I can hand it over to whoever needs to run it. To see the players celebrating like birds said to me these guys understand what this means.”

And what it means, said Lesufi, is that one of South African football’s giants is back and flying with the big boys, as a result of the sacrifices made by Lesufi and others whose love for Swallows runs deep. 

“This thing has made me poor. You know, football is very expensive. You cannot run a club without a sponsor. So to get a black businessperson who loves Swallows to take over has been a blessing in disguise.”

Another blessing, he said, came in the form of former employees who agreed to write off the huge debts the club owed them.

17 August 2019: Diehard Swallows supporter Rasta (in white cap) was a hit among the club’s supporters at the stadium.

“From the first day in 2015, when [former club chief executive] Leon Prins called me and said, ‘Chief, I am bankrupt, take this thing,’ to what I saw today, it is unbelievable. The debt was huge and we had to go to players to ask them to sign off saying they are giving up the money owed to them. But when you get to the guy’s house, you realise that the guy needs it. Some former players and employees are down and out, but they sacrificed and signed for the sake of the name and the club.”

This kind of generosity has not, however, been forthcoming from some of the foreign players, who have taken the club to Fifa. This is why the club is not yet able to use the name Moroka Swallows.

“We are still left with one major thing, which is the name,” Lesufi said. “Swallows had three Brazilian players and two who were not South African went to Fifa because their contracts were badly terminated. We thought we had resolved the matter, but it turned out we were talking to the wrong person. And so when Fifa heard we were coming to the NFD [National First Division, now the GladAfrica Championship], they wrote to the PSL [Premier Soccer League] and flagged the issues and the PSL said we should rather be cautious and use the name Maccabi until these things are resolved.”

17 August 2019: Panyaza Lesufi was not the only one who got emotional about Swallows’ return to the topmost league. One young supporter burst into tears after the match.

One more fight

To this effect, Lesufi has hired a legal firm – the same firm that has been helping him from the beginning and was responsible for helping him liquidate the previous Swallows – to deal with Fifa.

“We did not even want to write letters but we have instructed our legal firm to go directly to Switzerland [where Fifa is based] to make a presentation. The amount owed is huge, we cannot afford it. So we just want to plead poverty.”

Having already dealt with Fifa, Lesufi knows that the process is sure to drag on for a while. On Wednesday they received a minor reprieve, with the PSL agreeing to change the name from Maccabi FC to Swallows FC, the name they used in the ABC Motsepe League while they tried to sort out Moroka Swallows’ debt. The fans have been made to believe that this is their Moroka Swallows, but technically it isn’t. The real Moroka Swallows is ravaged by debt. 

But the fans aren’t likely to protest too much because the situation is better than what happened in 2016. Moroka Swallows agreed in principle to purchase the Free State Stars’ status only for the deal to fall through at the 11th hour, when supporters were expecting a return to the Premier Division. 

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Long-suffering but diehard fans such as Gendis – who arrived at the stadium inebriated, as he has done since the late 1980s – Rasta, Spikiri and Ivan – whose arrival on the main stand 15 minutes into the match whipped the rest of the crowd into a frenzy when he obligingly took off his shirt and led them in song and dance – will definitely want the club to be called Swallows officially as soon as possible. 

But whether or not that happens, in their eyes, this is Swallows. The same evidently applies to the club’s legends, the majority of whom expressed their desire and availability to help rebuild the club in whichever way Lesufi deems necessary. 

Former Maccabi coach Kenny Ndlazi was in the stands and spoke of how he knows a lot of players from his previous clubs in Swaziland, as well as in KwaZulu-Natal, who would be good to help strengthen the team.

17 August 2019: The Birds’ return to the big league allowed their fans to take a stroll down memory lane, reminiscing about the club’s rich history.

Overwhelming support 

Finkie “Mathousand” Sekete, a star player from the 1980s, described the performance as okay and the team as “in need of further strengthening”. But he called on fans to be patient with the players and give them undivided support. 

Lesufi said that strengthening the club would not be a problem, although his being “inspired by the youthful players” in the side has seen him holding back from taking up offers from most of the PSL chairpersons with a soft spot for Swallows.

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“I have been very touched by people who know where this club comes from. I can talk to [Mamelodi Sundowns president Patrice] Motsepe, [Jomo Cosmos boss] Jomo Sono, [Kaizer Chiefs supremo] Kaizer Motaung and [Orlando Pirates chair] Irvin Khoza. They have all said to me, come and choose the players you want. I am humbled.”

Some time after the final whistle, a beaming Lesufi popped open a champagne bottle in the presidential suite, flanked by the likes of Hlatshwayo and Mashaba as they toasted the resurrection of The Beautiful Dube Birds. Outside in the parking lot, former captain Percy Molotsane said he was “delighted that Swallows is back”.

But are they? 

Everything at Dobsonville Stadium said they were back. Everything, that is, except for the official name on the team sheet.

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