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The fans have spoken... or have they?

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Itumeleng Khune (left) and Moeneeb Josephs were allegedly voted off by the fans.

There’s no questioning the innovative nature of the Carling Cup, a unique competition which affords the fans of two of South Africa’s most popular teams a rare opportunity to have a say in who represents their clubs.

Statistics released by organisers prior to Saturday’s second instalment of this distinctive match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates showed more than 20 million votes were cast by fans in selecting the line-ups for both teams.

And, indeed, the event at FNB Stadium reignited memories of the World Cup final at the same venue two years, with over 92000 fans packing the Nasrec calabash-shaped stadium.

There was drama on the field, too, with Chiefs having for long periods looking set to avenge last year’s defeat to their rivals after taking an early lead through Abia Nale, only to be floored by a late, late Benni McCarthy header that sent the match to penalties.

Pirates emerged victorious there – winning 5-4 – sending their fans into rapturous celebration in what was a clear warning that the fighting spirit that won them two trebles in the past two seasons is still there.

But for all its inimitability and innovation, Saturday also served as a sad reminder that the Carling Cup remains an idea conceived out of questionable motives. It is still fresh in the minds of many that it was sprung on South Africans just a few days after we had been told the Charity Spectacular had been canned due to “fixture congestion”.

The SA football fraternity eventually had to accept that absurd claim, but another which bordered on the ridiculous was heard on Saturday. Having selected the starting XIs, fans were urged to make a substitution on either side and, we were told, they decided that both Itumeleng Khune and Moeneeb Josephs, the goalkeepers, should be replaced by Arthur Bartman and Senzo Meyiwa. “The fans have spoken,” the match announcer exclaimed as the ’keepers made their way out of the pitch minutes into the second half. Yet the very fans who ostensibly had “spoken” seemed puzzled at the substitutions, and the majority actually booed the decision.

This told a story of a competition founded on deception, for in reality even a supporter who had spent an entire evening imbibing on the brew which sponsors this match would not have made such a bizarre substitution.

Most disheartening of all was an attempt by both coaches, Stuart Baxter and Augusto Palacios, to plead ignorance on the substitutions. “We were as surprised as you were when we were told that both ’keepers had to come off,” Baxter, the Chiefs coach, said in a post-match press conference. “There was certainly no contact between the coaches.”

Pirates’ Palacios furiously shook his head in denying the subs had been pre-planned. But not even a five-year-old would have been fooled.

The fact remains that, in spite of casting votes and being made to feel important, the fans had very little to do with wholesale changes made to both teams in the second half. In all, 14 substitutions were made, some injury enforced, but most as a consequence of both coaches having an eye on real competition beginning this week.

Pirates start the defence of their Top Eight trophy – expected to still be sponsored by MTN – with a date against Bloemfontein Celtic on Friday, while Chiefs travel to Mam-elodi Sundowns on Sunday.

Both Palacios and Baxter needed to give some of their players a run, including the ’keepers, and surely could not risk injuries in a match as pointless as Saturday’s.

There’s no doubting that it was adequate preparation, however, not least for Pirates, who go into the new season with genuine bragging rights as they have three trophies to defend. For Chiefs, Saturday’s lapse deep into stoppage time, and the total meltdown in the penalty shoot-out, will have showed Baxter that a lot of hard work lies ahead. – The Star


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