CAPE TOWN – If there is an area of improvement that has been integral to Ajax Cape Town’s recent rise, it’s the central defensive partnership of Roscoe Pietersen and Rivaldo Coetzee.
After leaking goals all season, the Cape side has now had two consecutive wins, including two clean sheets. The growing understanding of Pietersen and Coetzee at the back has certainly been the foundation upon which Ajax have turned things around.
On Saturday, they host Bloemfontein Celtic in a PSL fixture at Athlone Stadium (8.15pm kickoff) and the duo will be looking to make sure they again shut out the opposition’s frontmen.
“Rivaldo’s a quality defender, he’s a national player, and I think, as a partnership, our bond is growing,” he said. “We are getting stronger with every game. I think we have gradually got to understand each other’s game, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we cover for each other.
“Obviously, as the older player, I take the lead with regard to communication, and if I can help Rivaldo with his game, to get him to be even better, then that is a bonus for me. I think he has a really bright future in the game.”
For Pietersen, though, it has been a long, hard slog to get where he is now. Sometimes it’s simply great to see a footballer finally starting to realise his potential, especially if his career has been dogged by hurdles completely out of his control. And then, in the same breath, to appreciate how hard the player has worked to get back on track.
This, in a nutshell, is Pietersen’s experience, and he is now playing an increasingly important role in coach Stanley Menzo’s plans for the team.
But it wasn’t always this way for the 28-year-old Capetonian. While, as a junior, Pietersen was seen as a future star in the local game, fate conspired to almost kill his promising career.
An inspired youth career with clubs like Hellenic, Battswood, Milano United and the Old Mutual Academy eventually saw him make a big contribution to Chippa United being promoted to the PSL in 2012.
His exploits at the then-Philippi club landed him a contract with SuperSport United – and it was here that things went awry. A serious knee injury set him back for a long time and, on his return, many months later, he was no longer in SuperSport’s plans. Two loan spells were to follow – first with AmaZulu and then, last year, with NFD side Vasco da Gama.
This season, he was signed by then-Ajax coach Roger de Sa, who was looking for defensive cover because he already had Rivaldo Coetzee, Lawrence Lartey and Erick Chipeta in central defence. Pietersen is also able to cover in central midfield, so his signing, at the time, made sense to De Sa.
But, with De Sa soon on his way, to be replaced by Menzo and, with the Ajax team struggling to get going, Pietersen proved to be more than just “cover”. In fact, over the last few weeks, he has been a regular presence in the centre of the Ajax defence – and has, arguably, been one of the more consistent players in the team.
“As they say,” said Pietersen, “sometimes you have to take five steps back to take 10 steps forward. I have never stopped believing in myself and my ability. After the injury problems I had at SuperSport, I had to go to AmaZulu and then drop down a division at Vasco, but those spells allowed me the opportunity to play more regularly and regain my confidence.
“I’m in a good space now. I’m feeling good again. I’ve been waiting a long time for the opportunity and I have to thank the coach and the club’s technical team for having faith in me. I’ve been able to play week in and week out - it’s looking good, but there is always room for improvement.”
Ajax have been plagued by inconsistency for most of the season - but, after two wins on the trot in the last two weeks, there is more than a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Pietersen says, even during the team’s low moments this year, he had no doubt that things would change for the better. Now that it has, and Ajax are free from any relegation danger, he is confident they can finish off strongly and push for a place in the top eight.