Ernst Middendorp stood up before Rhulani Mokwena finished answering the last question. The Orlando Pirates’ coach was going on about how his team will not be practising boxing during the international break, a not-so-subtle dig at Kaizer Chiefs who, he said, exhibited “thuggish behaviour” in the Soweto Derby they won 3-2 to maintain their lead at the summit of the Absa Premiership standings.
The German had heard enough. He walked out of the FNB Stadium auditorium briskly after a thrilling match that was followed by a tense post-match press conference. As if refusing to be upstaged, Mokwena stood up with purpose and with his chest out. He also walked out of the auditorium briskly as the coaches dramatically left the scene of the most entertaining derby in years.
The theatrical conclusion of the press conference mirrored the finish of the match. Chiefs’ Mulomowandau Mathoho was sent off for shoving Pirates’ Abel Mabaso after a skirmish broke out in the dying minutes of the game following a spat between Gabadinho Mhango and Lebogang Manyama. That fiery finish seeped into the press conference where Mokwena was seeing red.
Mokwena’s and Middendorp’s body language was as entertaining as the match, and more revealing than the words they uttered and the jibes they threw at each other as they sat side-by-side. While Mokwena ranted and raved in the press conference that lasted for just over half an hour, Middendorp cut a calm figure who tried to hold his tongue, but his body language betrayed him.
Middendorp listened to Mokwena attentively, shrugging and looking perplexed when the Pirates’ coach said something the 61-year-old disagreed with. At one point he looked at Mokwena lovingly, looking like a love-sick puppy with his hand on his chin and staring directly at his rival. That “loving” look was tinged with sarcasm. In between the jibes Mokwena threw, he mentioned how much he respects Middendorp as a coach and a tactician. The two coaches were asked if they begrudgingly respect each other on and off the pitch following the fiery finish.
No love lost
“If you’re in a game, sorry, there isn’t that you have to kiss each other,” Middendorp said. “You do the preparations three to four days before, then the 90 minutes gets heated and whatever you do intentionally, or you’re being provoked is what happens. Some coaches take it, and maybe you need an hour or a day to process it. I have a friend already, I don’t need another one.”
Mokwena refused to comment on the matter, but he did go on at length about the “thuggish” behaviour that peeved him.
“I try my level best to control my emotions,” Mokwena said. “Normally I invest a lot in terms of reading on emotional intelligence and I try hard to control my emotions. And yes, like coach Middendorp said maybe some of us take an hour, two, three or a week to process it. The reality of the story is that there was thuggish behaviour, and you can’t condone that.
“We have moved so much to where Pirates and Chiefs supporters can sit together on the stands. We can’t condone such behaviour that’s going to really, really lead to a situation where we have a stampede and violence because of things happening on the pitch. If that’s what we want as South Africa, maybe we haven’t learnt our lesson. I grew up in this country. I didn’t leave this country. No! I haven’t gone on a tourism thing. I know what has happened in the country. I understand everything that happened. Sometimes people slap me left and right, and they think I don’t see. I keep quiet and move on. You can slap me, it’s okay and it’s all right. But don’t punch my players.”
Middendorp didn’t take the accusations sitting down. “I have a good education, and my parents told me that at a certain time don’t talk,” he said. “Don’t start wars or fights. Just show you are a grown up. One against one belongs to the players … I spoke to Eric [Mathoho] and he said he was just on the way to protect his own players, protect the group with the players going at each other. Somebody [Mabaso, then] fell apart.
“If it is a foul in the penalty area, what should the referee do? Should he go first to the opposing coach and ask should I give it? Or should he phone somebody to ask if it’s the right decision? It was a very clear penalty. It was a clear foul. To use such words [thuggish] to describe this, I am far away from that. I don’t even use the word … I have always said that the bigger number of mistakes in South African soccer are done in attacking, in the final third. But now, will you blame the other team that they made less mistakes? That they had fewer errors? … If it’s a derby, this is normal [for confrontations]. Please guys, let’s not go into it and want to die in politeness. I said it at the beginning of the season, we had a lot of injuries last season because we went half-hearted in duels.”
Deflecting attention from poor run
Mokwena’s biggest bone of contention was the crunching tackle Willard Katsande inflicted on Fortune Makaringe. But his insistence to speak at length about Chiefs’ “thuggish behavior” – conveniently “forgetting” that Thembinkosi Lorch got away with stomping Khama Billiat a week ago and Tshegofatsa Mabasa’s reckless tackle on Highlands Park’s Lindokuhle Mbatha – was a strategy to deflect from talking about Pirates’ bad run.
It’s page one of the Pitso Mosimane handbook on how to deal with a defeat by a major rival. The Mamelodi Sundowns’ coach, who gave Mokwena his big break in the professional ranks, is a master of deflecting when his team don’t get the desired result in a big game. He has a way of manipulating the conversation by directing it into something else instead of the loss or even the game. Mokwena did this to perfection.
He controlled the press conference with the narrative, ensuring that most of it is spent talking about this and not how his team has won just two games from their last 10 league matches or how they struggle to transfer their good displays into positive results. When he eventually spoke about football, he wasn’t as animated or in control. He looked sheepish and his voice wasn’t as booming.
“Of course big clubs are judged by results, and we know that,” Mokwena said. “You are never going to step down from that because the moment we do that, we lose our status as a big club. We are realistic and fortunately our management understands football and understands where we are, why we are where we are. Our supporters are also people who are football-understanding people. Be that as it may, we’ve got to obviously start turning these good performances into results.”
Mokwena and Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic spoke at length about not only wanting to win, but to do so playing good football when they were appointed as Pirates’ assistant coach and head coach respectively in 2017. The pair managed to instil an enterprising brand of football but had nothing to show for it, twice finishing second. The same is still the case with Mokwena now in charge. For Pirates to weather the storm, they have to be able to also win ugly so as to build confidence and then look to play the brand of football that the Ghost demands.
Chiefs aren’t obsessed with how they play, or whether they dominate possession – just as long as they win at the end of the day. It’s a pragmatic approach that’s underpinned by a high work ethic that the German has instilled. Amakhosi have found a way to grind out results even when they aren’t the best team on the day, a key trait for a team with ambitions of winning the league. Despite Chiefs’ and Middendorp’s desire to put their hands on the league trophy in May, the German refused to touch the trophy in a photo opportunity during the pre-match conference at the Killarney Country Club.
“Why should I handle the trophy? Leave it. Respect it. If you have it at the end of the season, you can touch it for the next 12 months,” Middendorp said. “The reason [for my refusal to touch the trophy] is to show respect. This trophy currently belongs to Mamelodi Sundowns, and that’s it.”