Why Limpopo football teams always struggle

Limpopo club bosses blame their municipalities for adding to their struggles in top flight football, but Andries Sebola places the blame on bosses themselves for interfering.

In this world – so said Benjamin Franklin – nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. When it comes to Premier Soccer League (PSL) football, the one thing certain is that Limpopo clubs will always be among those struggling to stave off relegation.

A Limpopo team finishing in the top eight is an anomaly. It always leaves the football fraternity wondering: “How did they get that right?”

Baroka FC, Black Leopards and new kids on the block Tshakhuma Tsha Madzivhandila (TTM) are on the list of many pundits in their predictions of who could get the chop at the end of the 2020-21 season. 

Lest you start thinking the experts have it in for the clubs from up north, rest assured there is no such bias against them at all. Far from it, for even the owners of the clubs themselves admit that they always start the season on the backfoot.

“We will struggle again [this season],” David Thidiela, the owner of Leopards, said after his club – which finished second last in the Premiership last season – secured their stay in the top league via the play-offs against second-tier outfits Ajax Cape Town (now called Cape Town Spurs) and TTM.

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That TTM are now in the elite league is because they bought the status of Bidvest Wits, a move that could well backfire given their somewhat shambolic preparations for top-level football and how they have gone about running their club. 

The Venda-based outfit has already made headlines for all the wrong reasons after their overture to lure Zimbabwean coach Norman Mapeza to lead them fell flat. As if that was not enough, they also severed ties with Oupa Manyisa before he had kicked a ball – this after he was unveiled with much fanfare as their big signing from Mamelodi Sundowns. The side only had three substitutes on the bench in their first top-flight match against SuperSport United in the MTN8 because of registration issues. 

Such bungles are commonplace in Limpopo football – with all of Leopards, Baroka, the relegated Polokwane City as well as the now defunct Dynamos and Real Rovers having often displayed administrative ineptness tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot.

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Thidiela anticipating a tough campaign before the season had even started might speak to a club chairman lacking in ambition.

“It’s not that we don’t want to achieve things. We want to compete for titles, and we believe we can. But unless our situation changes and we get proper backing from our province, we will always be fighting on the backfoot.”

Thidiela expressed his envy for Chippa United. The Eastern Cape team enjoys great support from the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

“How does the government of PE (Port Elizabeth) afford to help Chippa the way they do and ours just don’t seem to care? Our local municipality does not support us. I do not think they care that we take their kids off the streets to save them from the ills of the society. Instead they see us as being rich and they are even jealous of us. But we are not rich, you can’t be rich from running a football club.”

3 November 2019: Black Leopards during the match in Thohoyandou. Club owner David Thidiela said his team would struggle again this Premiership season after finishing second last in the previous one.

Too much interference 

Khurishi Mphahlele, Thidiela’s counterpart at Baroka – a club that once again survived relegation by the skin of their teeth after drawing with Kaizer Chiefs on the last day of the season – feels the same way.

“We’d love to play our matches here in Lebowakgomo instead of going all the way to Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane. But the local [Lepelle-Nkumpi] municipality is not helping us. They are not supportive, so we play in Polokwane because they meet us halfway at least. It makes it hard for us to fill the stadium because the cost of travelling to town is too much for our fans who would no doubt come to our matches in numbers if we played at Lebowakgomo Stadium.”

The lack of support from their municipalities no doubt does hamstring these small clubs that do not attract the huge sponsorships in the same way the likes of Chiefs and Orlando Pirates do.

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But surely that is not the main reason they are not doing well.

A former star from Limpopo who is now a football analyst for Thobela FM believes the club owners themselves are the reason their clubs are not doing well.

“There is too much interference from team officials,” says Andries Sebola – the former Real Rovers and Orlando Pirates striker. “Too many of the administrators here at home like to tell the coaches who must play. Coaches are not given the freedom to run technical matters. For me, their biggest downfall is that they sign players without involving the coaches. 

“The owners often hire administrators and give them too much power. We have all heard stories of how some of these administrators act as agents in the buying and selling of players, that leads to them buying for the sake of making money instead of ensuring the club’s success. That’s a recipe for the disaster we witness season in and season out.”

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Sebola does acknowledge, however, that the interference is not just a Limpopo issue but a South African football ill at large.

“The biggest problem is that these directors get involved in contract negotiations with players and their agents, often without the coach’s involvement. And then the coach is expected to produce results with players he did not sign. Sometimes these coaches are even told who to play. He coaches and trains the team all week only to be told on Friday which player to use and which not to. That is why a lot of the coaches, especially at the clubs here at home, don’t last. They are professionals who can’t stand being dictated to by non-technical people.”

5 September 2020: Baroka FC players celebrate during the final Absa Premiership match of the season against Kaizer Chiefs. The club narrowly avoided relegation after drawing with Chiefs. (Photograph by Muzi Ntombela/ Gallo Images/ BackpagePix)

Why Thidiela will never not interfere 

Thidiela has heard these stories too often though and says it is all hogwash.

“Coaches leave not because I interfere as many people have often said. Tell me, how can I interfere in my own business? Do you want me to just sit back and let a coach go on when I see things going wrong? I have got to speak out. 

“The reason coaches are not staying for long at Leopards is not because of me. They leave because of the poor conditions they [are forced to] work in. They say they cannot be expected to produce great results in such difficult conditions. A lot of them are used to working in proper facilities. Even players, we cannot get the top quality because of that.”

The Leopards boss was at pains to explain the hardships he has had to deal with since trading his post as head of PSL security to run a professional club that he had thought would be the pride of Venda but has instead brought him nothing but envy instead of support.

3 November 2019: A fan of Black Leopards covers his face in disappointment after his team conceded a goal in the Premier Soccer League game against Golden Arrows at the Thohoyandou Stadium.

“Can you believe that I have had to fix the ground at Thohoyandou Stadium to make it playable and up to PSL standards from my own pocket. No help from the municipality at all. Yet I pay when I play there. I pay R68 000 for a match up front to the municipality, irrespective of what the gate takings are. And for a night match I pay R86 900.

“They don’t even appreciate the fact that we as Black Leopards are helping drive the economy of Thohoyandou because when we play there is huge economic activity here. I am not saying they must pay my players, but just meet us halfway with regards to facilities. We train in poor conditions and this is one of the key factors in us struggling to do well. 

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“The coaches come here and they just can’t stand working in conditions that are not conducive to producing good results. You cannot get a team that trains on an uneven pitch to play on a right one and expect good results. Also, how do you as Leopards convince the top players to come and play here. They are used to top facilities. And because we do not have sponsors, we can’t compete with the top clubs for salaries, we can’t afford the top player.”

Mphahlele can relate. “The top players are used to the high life of lights out in Gauteng where there is lots of entertainment away from the game. They are not keen to come over here. So, it is hard for us to attract top talent.”

This much was proven when Doctor Khumalo stayed as Baroka FC technical director for a period shorter than you can say 16V. The legendary former Chiefs and Bafana Bafana player said that there was no life in Limpopo.

Were he not a moVenda, Thidiela would long have relocated his club, he says.

“Can you believe there was a time when Mpumalanga Province approached me and asked that we move the club there? They were prepared to take care of us. And unlike here in Thohoyandou, they have training facilities that we were going to use. But I could not go. Venda is my home. But I am being treated like I am not from here. It is as if we are from a neighbouring country.”

3 November 2019: Black Leopards play their home games at the Thohoyandou Stadium. It helps drive the local economy, according to team owner David Thidiela.

Working together 

Their struggles are no doubt real and contribute to the hardships their clubs face on the pitch. But surely the Limpopo administrators need to also up their game. 

There has been a suggestion from certain circles that the Limpopo teams should work together to ensure they stay up. But how could they when they are in competition?

Mphahlele argues that even in competition, there is cooperation among the Limpopo clubs.

“In the off-season, we play friendlies against each other to prepare for the upcoming campaign. We bought a player from Tshakuma last year and we even get players from the other local clubs in the ABC Motsepe League. Even Leopards, we have loaned them players in the past. I also bought [Siphelele] Ntshangase from them for R2.5m. When they were in the NFD we helped them. So it is not true that we don’t work together even though logic dictates we shouldn’t because we are in competition.”

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Unlike Thidiela who has a bleak outlook on the future, Mphahlele believes his team is on the right trajectory given they are “new” in the elite league.

“We’re still babies in this league and competing with someone who is 50 years old in the business is always going to be hard. A coach like Pitso Mosimane had more service at Sundowns than Baroka’s existence. We are gradually getting used to life at the top and I am happy that we have managed to maintain our status in the PSL. We will move up, we’re still learning.”

They better learn quickly though if they are to stop being the pundits’ choice for relegation.

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