Johannesburg - Upon entering the sleepy town of Bethlehem – established in 1859, with a total circumference of 27.83km2 and a population of 16 236 – it is difficult to associate it with being the home of champions.
Situated on the Liebenbergs Vlei River along a fertile valley just north of the Rooiberg Mountains on the N5, the place is a wheat-growing region named after the Biblical Bethlehem (from “Beit Lechem”, Hebrew for “house of bread”).
Just outside the town is the tiny township Bohlokong, named after the type of grass common in the area that Basotho call Hloko/Bohloko.
It is at the offices in the city – a 270km and three-hour drive from Joburg – that I am met with the bad news that, to make contact with the team’s supporters, which is the main purpose of this visit, I have to travel a further 100km to Phuthaditjhaba.
So begins the second leg of the trip to the former Bantustan of QwaQwa. It is here, at a shopping centre, that I am met by a group of enthusiastic, passionate Ea Lla Koto supporters, patiently waiting for me after being informed of my pending visit.
The number of tractors on the road is proof that this is a farming area.
However, the surroundings did very little to dim the excitement of the supporters dressed in the club’s colourful paraphernalia.
“Instead of celebrating on Saturday after our win, I cried,” effuses QwaQwa branch chairperson Nelly Tshabalala. “I didn’t believe we actually won.”
She said they even took their children to the final in Cape Town to witness this historic moment.
For the record, Stars beat Maritzburg United on Saturday night to be crowned Nedbank Cup champions, a feat that comes with the bonus of representing South Africa in next season’s CAF Confederation Cup.
It was the first time Stars won a trophy in the Premier Soccer League era. Their last silverware was in the Coca-Cola Cup in 1994, two years before the PSL was founded.
Two seasons ago, club chairperson Mike Mokoena put up the “for sale” sign as the club had become a financial burden on him and his family, but the R7 million cheque that comes with this victory is a well-deserved reward.
“We thank him [Mokoena] for standing with us. At that time, he called a meeting to tell us he was selling the team, but later he said he wouldn’t be selling because, even though it was difficult to run a club that wasn’t making a profit, it showed he cared a lot about the supporters,” said Tshabalala.
Another supporter, Moeketsi Mthombeni, urged the team to look no further than their surroundings when signing new players. He said it was a pity that only three players in the first team were actually from the Free State.
“We need players from Free State, and the club should scout around the province,” said Mthombeni.
“I am not saying foreign players are not good. But if a foreign player comes and sits on the bench, it does not make sense. I think it is wasteful expenditure.”
He suggested that Stars organise school tournaments around the province to unearth new talent.
He also urged management to consider returning to Charles Mopeli Stadium in Phuthaditjhaba because it is much bigger than Goble Park, which they currently use in Bethlehem. He added that winning a trophy would surely attract even more supporters.
He made reference to the time they played their biggest rivals, Bloemfontein Celtic, and there was chaos in Goble Park because Celtic had more supporters and the stadium uses just one gate.
Charles Mopeli Stadium has a capacity of 35 000, while Goble Park can only accommodate 20 000 supporters.
“Our passports are ready now. We are ready to conquer Africa,” said Mthombeni.
Stars supporters even have their own regular and reliable driver, Biki Motloung, who takes them to all their games in his minibus.
Motloung said he enjoyed going with them because they were always singing and were very united.
Fans believe supporting their local team benefits their communities economically because, when there are games, people within the community sell food and team jerseys to the spectators.
– Additional information on Bethlehem, Bohlokong and QwaQwa from Wikipedia