CAPE TOWN - Free State Stars’ triumph in the Nedbank Cup at the weekend secured the club a place in next season’s Caf Confederation Cup - and their participation in the event certainly comes at the right time.
In the past, PSL clubs have not placed African inter-club competitions high on their priority list, but the performances of Mamelodi Sundowns and Orlando Pirates in recent years have witnessed a resurgence in the willingness to accept the continental challenge. Sundowns were crowned champions of Africa in 2016; Pirates made it to the final of the African Champions League in 2013 and the final of the Confederation Cup in 2015.
With the curtain closing on the PSL season after Saturday’s Cup final at the Cape Town Stadium, South Africa’s representatives on the continent for next season are: league champions Sundowns and runners-up Pirates in the Champions League; and third-placed Kaizer Chiefs and Nedbank Cup champions Free State Stars in the Confederation Cup.
For the Free State club, this is an opportunity of a lifetime: always regarded as a bit of a sleeping giant, Stars have finally demonstrated the prodigious playing talent available in that part of South Africa and the latent potential at the root of the club. All it needed was to improve the organisation, to put together a balanced squad of youth and experience, and to hire an experienced coach to point the team in the right direction.
This season, it all came to fruition and the Cup success in the Mother City on Saturday was the Free State team’s first trophy in 24 years. Now, the challenge is to build on that; to ensure that the achievement is not a flash in the pan. They have to continue the great work and become even better going forward.
The first commitment is to accept the challenge presented by the Confederation Cup - and, in Belgian Luc Eymael, Stars have a coach who understands the nuances and difficulties of playing on the continent. The 58-year-old Eymael has coached in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Algeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan.
“It costs money to play in Africa,” said Eymael. “But it’s also an honour - you are playing for your province and for your country. The football is at a higher level and the players gain valuable experience by playing in such competitions. In this way, it benefits the league, and it benefits the country’s national team.
“I have the experience - and I will sit down with the club’s management to explain what we can expect when playing in Africa. Most importantly, the team will have to be mentally strong I know what it takes and it won’t be easy. We will have to reinforce the team. I will meet with the board soon; we will release players and we will bring in some new players.”
Money, of course, as with everything else, is an issue. Stars are not wealthy and it’s, therefore, crucial for the club’s commercial arm to start early and bash down a few corporate doors; sponsorship is critical.
In this season’s Confederation Cup, SA clubs never fared all that well, with Cape Town City, SuperSport United and Wits failing to progress. Stars have an opportunity to do the country proud by taking their first tilt at a continental competition and trying to go as far as they can. It won’t be easy - as rookies, they will have all sorts of hurdles and shenanigans on the journey. But, really, it’s a challenge impossible to ignore; it’s a journey they simply have to take.
And, while Stars as a club may be new to the tournament, they will have experienced 36-year-old central defender Rooi Mahamutsa to call upon for advice and guidance. Mahamutsa played for Pirates in both Champions League and Confederation Cup finals. He knows what it’s all about - and, no doubt, he’ll be keen for another shot at Africa.