Johannesburg – From the heights of the previous week when their progression into the African Champions League semi-final got them highest praise, Orlando Pirates have had a horrid week littered with publicity that can only be described as damaging to a brand.
It all started last weekend in Durban, and that was not just because they lost an MTN8 final. It was what happened behind the scenes ahead of the final against Platinum Stars which had many among us wondering if Pirates truly bound themselves to the professional codes that the Premier Soccer League so stringently seeks to apply.
An hour before kickoff, as is mandatory according to the PSL’s media manual, a Pirates’ teamsheet was handed out to all media and in it Lehlogonolo Masalesa’s name was listed.
Yet just before kickoff, Masalesa’s place had been taken by Andile Jali.
At the post-match press conference, I asked Roger De Sa what the problem was, and he merely dismissed the matter as a “mistake” by someone who had compiled the list. “Jali was always going to start,” the Pirates coach insisted.
But in a world of conspiracy and speculation, De Sa’s words were not sufficient to be accepted as the absolute truth.
There were murmurs that he may have been “overruled”, given that of all people he would not treat Masalesa – a player he worked with for some time when both were at BidVest Wits – with such disdain.
That incident was minor, however, in comparison with what Benson Mhlongo, the Platinum Stars defender who used to play for Pirates, uttered before the television cameras after his team had won the match on penalties.
He accused Pirates, when he was still with them, of having tried to force him to “sign off” his career. “They put papers from some insurance company in front of me, saying I should sign and confirm that I would never play again due to injury,” Mhlongo said, and he repeated the allegation several times two days after the final.
This is a serious accusation which in any corporate environment would elicit a strong response, but Pirates chose to deal with it by letting Mickey Modisane – their PRO – do a handful of interviews.
There was no official press statement, then; probably just Modisane being phoned by journalists and giving his own response, which was so lacking in detail that it surely can’t have been the club’s official line in dealing with such a damaging claim.
As if that was not enough, the biggest blow to Pirates’ image this week was from within. Of all people, Lucky Lekgwathi had a full go at his club after he was omitted from the final match-day squad.
Writing in the Daily Sun, the Bucs skipper and longest-serving player hung the club’s dirty linen out in public, complaining that he had been left out not by coach De Sa, but by “other sinister forces”.
“Some people want to take the glory and pass it on to their friends. I have worked so hard and it hurts to be treated like that after lifting all those trophies. Even my other teammates were surprised that I was (not in the team),” Lekgwathi wrote.
The Jali incident may indeed have been a genuine “mistake”, as De Sa put it, but the reality is that other teams have in the past been fined by the PSL for contravening media manual provisions. It’s something that’s not to be expected of a club of Pirates’ stature.
Lack of a measured, strong response from the Pirates’ hierarchy serves to fuel speculation, and creates a vacuum where innuendo can pass for the truth.
Lekgwathi has been the club’s captain for years and for such a reticent figure to lose it in this way, he must have been enraged. It would help a great deal if there was some sort of explanation from the club.
Elsewhere such claims would lead to serious censure or suspension, even when proven to be true. Pirates may hope these incidents disappear from the media space but looking away has never been the best way of escaping a storm.
*Follow Matshe on Twitter @Nkareng