Kaizer Chiefs no longer the be all and end all of SA soccer
Kaizer Chiefs insist they remain viable contenders for the Premier Soccer League, but the sense that the country's most popular club were always battling to stay among the frontrunners was given added credence on Tuesday when they lost 3-2 to Cape Town City in a top-of-the-table clash.
Although it was the first league defeat for Chiefs since early December, it sees them dropping down to fourth place and, with tough tussles remaining in their last five fixtures, has drastically cut their odds of taking the title.
"For as long as mathematically it makes sense, we will keep pushing," coach Steve Komphela said after the defeat at the Cape Town Stadium.
"Even if there is no hope in our last match, we have a responsibility to the Chiefs supporters to keep pushing and play good football so that when we leave Chiefs, when the time comes that this generation is no more, people will look and say 'they might not have won anything but, goodness me, what a game they were playing'."
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In the subtext of his statement is a reference to the fact that Chiefs are now staring at a second successive season without silverware - something of a rarity in the club's illustrious history.
Stuart Baxter left Amakhosi some 22 months ago with the league title but Komphela, for all his insistence on free-flowing football, has been unable to match the achievements of a long list of illustrious predecessors.
It is obviously weighing on him as Chiefs sit four points adrift of the leaders.
But the slow fading from their previous position at the helm of the South African game has been inevitable as Chiefs can no longer match the spending power of clubs like Mamelodi Sundowns, Bidvest Wits and SuperSport United, and find themselves no longer the favoured destination for players.
Chiefs used to attract the cream of local footballers, but the lure of better salaries and signing-on on fees elsewhere has knocked them out of first place in the queue.
Resultantly, they do not possess the requisite depth in their squad, vital for the closing stages of the title race. Goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune's hip flexor injury meant they had to play a 21-year-old debutant in Tuesday's game, and while Bruce Bvuma did little wrong, he did have to pick the ball out of his own net on three occasions.
Players like Tsepo Masilela, Bernard Parker and Siphiwe Tshabalala are reaching the twilights of their careers, although still vital to the cause. The talent that was supposed to replace them - William Thwala, Pule Eksteen and George Lebese - are all serially inconsistent and devoid of match-winning ability.
Chiefs have also bought poorly ahead of recent seasons, with Siyanda Xulu hardly playing but earning a good salary, Ennocent Mkhabela going out on loan without kicking a ball in anger, and Keegan Buchanan arriving from Bloemfontein Celtic with serious injury issues.
What Chiefs did display on Tuesday was a tenacity that they still possessed, notably on the road when they have more fervent support behind them and it fuels their confidence.
But alarmingly poor home attendances at Soccer City mean playing Chiefs at home is no longer the nerve-wracking experience it used to be for opponents. Although they are unbeaten at home in the league this season, Chiefs have drawn six of their 13 home games in a return that hardly offers championship credentials.