Maritzburg United avoided automatic relegation. Photo: Kabelo Leputu/BackpagePix

Not since the birth of Jesus Christ some 2000 and a bit years ago has Bethlehem taken such centre stage as it did yesterday.

For close on five minutes just before 5pm, South Africa stood still, awaiting news from the tiny Free State town with the name similar to that of the historic Biblical city.

Here in Polokwane, Eric Tinkler paced about - often standing hands akimbo as the news took long to arrive. With the Free State Stars v Mamelodi Sundowns match having started a little late due to crowd disturbances, it meant all the other Absa Premiership finale matches finished before it.

And with his team holding Baroka 1-1, Tinkler and everyone related to The Team of Choice were eager to hear what transpired in Bethlehem. The travelling Maritzburg fans who had hitherto been vociferous in cheering their team went mouse quiet, the majority of them gazing at their phones.

Club boss Farook Kadodia who had rushed to the pitch at the final whistle stood in the ‘dugout’ engaged in discussion with some members of the technical team.

Slowly, the news of Stars’ defeat to Sundowns trickled in and patches of fans in the crowd started celebrating. It was not until a Maritzburg official jumped up and punched the air in excitement that the reality of their survival sunk in.

One would have sworn they were safe, such was the manner of the fans’ and players’ celebration. That they still have to play four matches against two opponents from the National First Division did not matter.

Both fans and players applauded and sang, and when Tinkler completed his obligatory television interviews, he received the kind of love worthy of a man who has worked a miracle to ensure a team that had been written off, given their pathetic start to the season, still has a fighting chance.

“Tinkler, Tinkler, Tinkler”, the crowd chanted, and South African football’s most famous ginger acknowledged with a wave and a smile. He had simply walked on straight to the dressing room at half-time when the crowd chanted similarly. Then, United led 1-0 thanks to a Fortune Makaringe goal slotted home after Baroka goalkeeper Elvis Chipezeze had fluffed a corner kick.

Baroka equalised on 65 minutes via Mduduzi Mdantsane, a strike that took the sting out of Maritzburg’s play and saw Tinkler age a million times as he cajoled his team, fought with the officials and screamed his lungs out lamenting his team’s poor decision.

No doubt news of Black Leopards and Chippa United winning against Cape Town City and Kaizer Chiefs filtered through, leaving all attention on Bethlehem. When it came, it was good tidings for Maritzburg. Unlike when the star stood bright above the shed in Biblical Bethlehem, this time the Free State Stars were dimmed for good.

@Tshiliboy


Sunday Independent

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