Johannesburg - Mpumalanga province lost an Absa Premiership team in 2016, but ambitious soccer lovers are injecting big money into the lower leagues to develop a future top-flight league team.
It could be a few years before the PSL dream is realised, but the investment is clear for everyone to see.
Mpumalanga Black Aces used to be the province’s only PSL team, until John Comitis bought its status to form Cape Town City, which he relocated to the Western Cape.
Unlike other provinces such as Limpopo and the Free State, which have two professional teams each, Mpumalanga has nothing, and the R1.2 billion Mbombela Stadium is barely being used.
Mpumalanga has two teams campaigning in the National First Division (NFD) - Mbombela United and Witbank Spurs - but they have outside chances of qualifying for the playoffs and making it into the PSL next season.
In the third-tier ABC Motsepe League, Mbombela attorney Slungu Thobela is spending R300 000 a month on expenses for his team, TS Sporting, which is based in Zwelisha, 32km outside Mbombela.
TS Sporting are second on the log, six points behind Phiva United from Nkomazi, but the ABC Motsepe League is riddled with corruption, so there are disputes that must be taken care of before the league determines who goes to the national playoffs to fight for promotion to the NFD.
Should TS Sporting qualify for the playoffs and win, they would stand a chance to emulate Chippa United, who spent one season in each lower league before their meteoric rise to the PSL in the 2012/13 season.
Formed two years ago, TS Sporting spent one season in the SAB League and was promoted to the ABC Motsepe League. The team has a five-year plan to be in the PSL, and Thobela said they were on the right track.
“We’re more organised and in a respectable position. We have three years to reach our target to be in the PSL, and we may achieve it earlier,” Thobela said.
Phiva owner Man Khoza said he would comment about his team’s plans once the disputes were resolved.
Mbombela United spokesperson Sostern Gutsa said the team should have been in the PSL by now. They qualified for the play-offs in 2016, but lost to Highlands Park.
“We’re not as competitive as we were in the playoffs, but we will beef up our squad and campaign next season. People here are hungry for a PSL soccer team associated with their province,” Gutsa said.
Mbombela has since cut its expenditure, particularly when it comes to transporting supporters to games, and the entrance fee is no longer waived.
Witbank Spurs co-owner Themba Mafu said the team was still inspired to campaign in the PSL and had improved from fighting for relegation to fighting for playoffs.
“It wouldn’t make economic sense to play in the NFD with no ambition for the PSL. Since the inception of the PSL, the same teams were promoted, relegated and promoted again. Financial stability counts and this is a cash-hungry sport where players expect more,” he said.
Mafu said he was inspired to keep going by the players his team had produced, such as Mamelodi Sundowns’ Percy Tau.