Orlando Pirates’ senior statesman Happy Jele has dismissed the notion that they are Absa Premiership title contenders, even though the Buccaneers are in second place, five points behind Mamelodi Sundowns.
Jele’s statement is part truth and part mind games so that they can play with freedom in the final stretch with the pressure on the Brazilians.
The championship was the furthest thing on the Buccaneers’ minds at the start of the season. Their immediate challenge was washing away the painful memories of last season’s disastrous campaign.
But as the season has progressed, Pirates have grown with each game to eventually get to a point where their name is mentioned among the league contenders despite having played one more match than the Brazilians.
“I won’t say we are title contenders,” Jele said. “We finished 11th last season. We are trying to improve from that. That’s all I can say.
“You can’t predict the future. There are a lot of games to come and the league positions have constantly been changing.”
Last season was the worst campaign Jele has been involved in with the Buccaneers in the 12 years he has called the club home. Pirates coach Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic has drastically changed the make-up of the team to move away from that dark past to usher in a brighter future.
The club has been slowly shedding the players who were part of the back-to-back domestic trebles and reached the finals of the 2013 Caf Champions League and 2015 Caf Confederation Cup.
The Nedbank Cup last-16 draw will see Jele reunite with a man who played a starring role in the second of those domestic trebles - Benni McCarthy, who is now the Cape Town City coach.
“Yes, he was playing for Pirates and he was my colleague, but this is a different ball game,” Jele said.
“He is coaching now and I am still playing. We want to go there and compete to go to the next round. At least we know them well. We have seen them play, unlike teams from the ABC Motsepe League.
“Cape Town City have been doing well this season and are not an easy team to face. But we’ll go out and do our best and we’re looking forward to it.”
The Nedbank Cup is the Buccaneers’ last realistic shot of silverware this season.
Success in the competition they last won in 2014 would fuel their new dawn under Sredojevic.
The Serbian has improved the players’ mental strength dramatically, along with creating a competitive environment that has seen everyone push for their place in the starting XI - even senior figures like the 31-year-old Jele.
The arrival of Augustine Mulenga will also increase that fight for places. The Zambian, who can play on the wings and up front, arrived as his country’s Footballer of the Year.
“He is a good player,” Jele said. “I saw him playing in Chan (African Nations Championship).
“When he arrived this week, I spent time with him and I told him he’s a good player and he needs to help the team. He is going to have a big, positive impact in the team.
“Everyone who is given a chance has done well. We are trying to improve each and every game. Everyone is competing for their place. He also needs to compete for his and that can only benefit the team.”
Nedbank Cup Last-16 Draw
Kaizer Chiefs v Stellenbosch FC; Cape Town City v Orlando Pirates; Royal Eagles v Maritzburg United; AmaZulu v Ubuntu Cape Town; Free State Stars v Chippa United; Mamelodi Sundowns v EC Bees; Bloemfontein Celtic v Richards Bay FC; Baroka FC v Steenberg United.
* Dates and venues to be confirmed.