Johannesburg - When Swedish tycoon Dan Olofsson opened Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal more than 10 years ago, he invited Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini to the star-studded affair.
As part of giving back to the community, Olofsson started the Thanda Star Academy to help develop young black soccer players in the area and give them essential life skills.
The tycoon went big, bringing in his countryman and former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to help him establish a soccer team, Thanda Royal Zulu.
A Premier Soccer League (PSL) status was bought from the now-defunct Benoni United, and the team was moved to Richards Bay.
But its fortunes waned after that and, in the 2008/09, season the side was relegated to the lower division.
Since then, it has been fighting its way back to the top flight. It finally earned that deserved promotion last season, bringing hope and joy to a region that can truly benefit from having a team in the PSL.
But that joy was short-lived. Instead of celebrating this achievement, club chairperson Pierre Delvaux went around announcing his intention to sell the team’s PSL status, saying it was too expensive to run.
Now Durban-based outfit AmaZulu have bought this status, with figures as high as R55 million being bandied about.
There is nothing to celebrate here.
The city of uMhlathuze, where the club is based, is dismayed and so should the rest of the football-loving fraternity be. The city issued a statement in May condemning the move, urging the PSL’s executive committee not to endorse it.
“The city of uMhlathuze has for years invested millions of rands into the club as main sponsors with the intention of seeing the club developing to the top league. City people and soccer lovers invested their hearts when the club was struggling and supported it with all they had until the glory days,” it said.
“Taxpayers’ money was also invested in improving the stadium to accommodate the club’s success and, just recently, R14 million worth of Fifa- accredited stadium lights were installed. There were also more improvements on the way, worth millions of rands, which will go down the drain if the allegations are proven to be factual.”
This is what one of the team’s fans had to say on hearing the news that its status could be sold to AmaZulu: “I understand it’s difficult to keep the club afloat, but he [Delvaux] must think about the fans who have always supported the club through thick and thin.
“I’ve been to their homeground, Umhlathuze Sports Complex, a couple of times and the fans have always filled it to the rafters.
“I hope this sale too doesn’t succeed so that AmaZulu can learn to win on the pitch, not in the boardroom. If the PSL approves this sale, then a relegation dogfight becomes pointless. Let it be about football, not money.
“Football is the beautiful game and that’s what we want to enjoy.”
Football has its roots in working-class communities. The game of billions has taken kids from the rough edges of the world and turned them into global superstars. There are cities that are built around football. Imagine Liverpool without Anfield, Bilbao without the San Mamés or Orlando without its majestic theatre.
A city such as Richards Bay has a lot to gain from a professional team represented in the Premiership. It is not just entertainment value for the fans; a professional soccer team brings with it massive economic spin-offs.
Given the high level of emotion the people of Richards Bay invest in football, you are guaranteed that home games will be packed.
Whenever such home games are televised, the benefits increase exponentially. The municipality was right to invest this money into the team and a sale of the status would be a terrible way to repay that faith.
The complaint by Delvaux that running a football club is too expensive is bizarre at this stage. If they could, for almost a decade, afford to pump money into a team stuck in the wilderness of the National First Division, how can they want to give up now that they have reached the promised land?
PSL teams receive up to R1.5 million a month to cater for operational expenses; it would not be that difficult to find a local sponsor willing to cover the shortfall. Unless, of course, the R55 million sale price, if true, is more appealing to some of the club directors.
Think about the players who have been with the team in the first division all these years, putting in the work with the hope of carrying it to the PSL. How many of them can AmaZulu accommodate? It is truly unfair on them, on the fans and on the city.
Usuthu must learn to fight their way up rather than buying other people’s hard work. The PSL must put an end to this bad practice.
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