Iqraam Rayners of Stellenbosch FC is carried off the pitch on the shoulders of fans after helping Stellenbosch to win the League and Promotion to the Absa Premiership. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix
Iqraam Rayners of Stellenbosch FC is carried off the pitch on the shoulders of fans after helping Stellenbosch to win the League and Promotion to the Absa Premiership. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix
Stellenbosch FC coach Steve Barker celebrates winning the league with his family. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky BackpagePix
Stellenbosch FC coach Steve Barker celebrates winning the league with his family. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky BackpagePix
Football often offers up a mirror for a region to honestly examine its flaws. History may be a brutal judge, but human nature is such that there is always space for optimism.

Within this context, it’s important to understand the magnitude of what Stellenbosch FC have achieved in winning promotion to the top-flight Premier Soccer League (PSL). It’s an accomplishment for the rookie professional club  but, more than that, they have placed football on the map in a town celebrated for its rugby exploits. In an area famous for its wine, they have cultivated a flavour of their own. In a region coming to terms with its shadowy past, they have provided a source of light.

The aim to use football to change people and perceptions is at the heart of the vision of the new owners of Stellenbosch FC.

The club has its roots in the National First Division (NFD) franchise of Parow-based Vasco da Gama. In 2016, then-owner Mario Ferreira decided to relocate the club to the Cape Winelands, renamed it Stellenbosch FC, and plotted a course for the PSL. They failed to achieve this objective last season and Ferreira opted to sell the club.

When moving the club to the Winelands area, Ferreira had involved the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) in his project. The SAS provided services and its facilities to Stellenbosch FC. When Ferreira wanted out the SAS asked for first-option to purchase the club.

Remgro Limited got involved and, in conjunction with the SAS, they purchased the NFD franchise of Stellenbosch FC. Johann Rupert, the chairman of Remgro, always flashed his cheque book for rugby  now he had another, more inclusive, vehicle for social responsibility investment.

In the words of Stellenbosch FC’s chief executive Rob Benadie: “That was why we bought it  because we believe in using football as a tool to uplift the community. There are so many who play football and there are so many people who follow it. We have been doing so much social responsibility work in the surrounding communities in the area, which is why we thought it would be remiss of us not to secure the club for the Stellenbosch region.”

Founded by Simon van der Stel in 1679, the town of Stellenbosch is a stark reminder of the bitter divisions of the past that continue to affect the present. In the middle of the hub of its existence is Stellenbosch University, which is still tainted by its links to the formulation of the apartheid ideology that destroyed the fabric of the country.

There is a savage beauty to Stellenbosch. Drive down the R44 and admire the sprawling farms, taste the lovely wines, and revel in the natural charm of the region. Enter the town and be assailed by trendy restaurants and bars, fancy, upmarket apartments and villas, and watch the moneyed splash their cash. Beneath the surface, there’s an inequality and a disjunction that rasps the soul. Rich and poor living cheek by jowl in an insane microcosm of a country still deeply at war with itself. It’s this gulf that Stellenbosch FC is trying to bridge.

Stellenbosch FC coach Steve Barker celebrates winning the league with his family. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky BackpagePix

“Sport in general, and football in particular, is able to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor,” said Benadie. “We want to make sure that this town is as inclusive as possible  we want to bring people from diverse cultures, backgrounds and communities together. As an organisation, we have already been doing it, with civic initiatives, and using sport as a tool. But, now, having a professional football team, we have something even more powerful as a catalyst to inspire the youth and give them dreams to pursue. Stellenbosch is a complex environment, it’s surrounded by all these little dorpies, and this is the most beautiful thing for me: standing in front of the stands in Idas Valley and you see all different races and cultural groups coming in to support the one team. That is just powerful.”

Stellenbosch has always been rugby territory. In 1909, Paul Roos attended a school in the area called Wilgenhof. He captained the Springboks and, later, the school was renamed Paul Roos Gymnasium. It is still famous for its rugby heritage. But Stellenbosch is just as well known for its footballers. The difference being that, during apartheid, they never got the recognition they deserved. There was the genius of Peter “Lucky” Fisher and Reggie Jantjies, the agile former Cape Town Spurs goalkeeper Philip Luiters and Santos striker Aubrey Isaacs, to name a few. As Stellenbosch FC emerges onto the PSL stage, it’s a testament to the football talent of the region, it pays homage to the football greats, and it’s an opportunity for football to find its rightful space in an area where it has often been neglected.

“If you grow up in Stellenbosch, in this Winelands area, as a rugby player, there’s a clear pathway for you to go,” explained Benadie. “There are great schools here  and you end up playing for Maties, Western Province, the Stormers and then the Springboks. This, for example, has been done over 30 times at just one school, Paul Roos, which is situated just across from our club. But, if you grow up playing football, there is no pathway. You dream of playing for Chiefs or Pirates in Joburg, or maybe, as in the past, perhaps Santos, but there is nothing in the Winelands. And yet there are clubs in Stellenbosch who are over 100 years old, like Idas Valley, Spes Bona and Jamestown - they are all famous old football clubs in the area.

So, for us, it was always very clear: we know Stellenbosch is always going to be very powerful when it comes to rugby, and that’s great, but we believe it can be both rugby and football. It can be a successful destination for rugby, football and cycling and other sports. This is a great sport town. Maybe, in the past, it just hasn’t taken football seriously enough. For us, and what we have achieved, this is about creating a proper pathway for young footballers in the region. They can choose football as a sport and also achieve something great.”

The determining factor in Stellenbosch’s promotion was securing a home venue at Idas Valley. With the team able to play in one of the districts in the area, they drew full-houses as the local communities rallied behind the team.

“For us, this was very important. The previous season, the club played all its games at Athlone and Parow. At that time, Idas Valley wasn’t up to standard and Coetzenburg Stadium was being upgraded by the university. We then very quickly worked with the Stellenbosch Municipality to get Idas Valley to the standard required by the league. The move to Idas Valley has been the real success story  because we needed to get a home base to get the supporters and the community behind the team.

“We had a limited budget, so we had to do a lot of planning with Steve (Barker, head coach) and his assistants. We put a lot of effort in trying to recruit good characters for the squad, we wanted players who would fit into our mould. We had a small squad, but we made sure that we built a good culture around the team, that the team spirit was right, and that we had a good medical staff to service the players. With such a small squad, it was important to keep players fit and healthy. Right from the start, we made it clear to the players what we wanted to achieve.

“Also, one of the main objectives of the club is to try and be a home-grown team as far as possible, so we want to unearth the talent here in the Winelands area in the years to come. The process is already underway - of the 23-man squad which won promotion, six of the players are born and bred in the region, from Idas Valley, Cloetesville, Kayamandi and so on. That also assisted in getting supporters from the communities to come and watch because they know the local players. It obviously helped that the team was doing well, but I think the community could also see that we weren’t paying lip-service to our vision of trying to be a home-grown team.”

A hard-tackling, no-nonsense midfielder during his playing days with Wits University and SuperSport United, the 51-year-old Barker knows his way around the NFD. He had inspired the University of Pretoria to PSL promotion. Barker knew what he needed to achieve his goals. Most importantly, as both he and Benadie insist, the club didn’t just want good players, they wanted good characters.

“I think we recruited really well at the beginning of the season,” said Barker. “I’ve been in this NFD for quite a few years and what I wanted to do was to make sure that we got the type of player that suits this league. The facilities were excellent, and our planning, preparation, team spirit and work ethic were of a high standard. At the SAS, we rub shoulders with the Sevens Rugby team and other international athletes who use the facilities, and that raised the level of professionalism of our approach. We took it day by day, focused on the next training session, the next game; then we focused on recovery, and focused on the next meal to be eaten. All of this was to make sure the players had the right professional attitude.

“It helped that we had the top goalscorer in the league  Iqraam Rayners. Any team that wants to be successful has to have a player who can score goals. We had that.

We also decided that we wanted to be an attacking team, and we wanted to put opponents on the back foot. We played a style of football that was aggressive, but also, at the same time, remaining difficult to break down when we didn’t have the ball. I think we got the balance right.”

But Barker is adamant they have a good base to work from.

“There’s not much to change. A lot of the players we recruited for the NFD were young players - full of running, full of pace and energy - which is always required in football. And these young players will continue their development in the PSL. There are just a few areas where we may have to bring in some experience and the right kind of quality which can take the team forward. But I want to stress that there won’t be wholesale changes - we are happy with the squad we have.

“The biggest adjustment will be the technical and tactical superiority of the PSL. Because, at that higher level, when you make mistakes you get punished.

That is probably the biggest difference between the NFD and the PSL - you cannot make too many errors. Also, scoring opportunities are limited, so you have to make the most of it when chances come your way. Both from an attacking and a defensive point of view, we are going to have to take the team to a different level.”

Stellenbosch FC’s elevation to the PSL offers the region an opportunity to shake off the shackles of the past. It’s a shot at redemption, but only if the community as a whole is able to embrace the rise of football in the area.

@Reinerss11


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