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Survival of the slickest: the relegation dogfight continues

Survival of the slickest: the relegation dogfight continues
PSL chairperson Irvin Khoza. (Photo by Sydney) Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Another season, another frantic fight for DStv Premiership survival between the minnows. 

While all the focus is on champions-in-waiting Mamelodi Sundowns, who are now just a couple of games from claiming the DStv Premiership title for the sixth season on the trot, things are just beginning to heat up at the bottom of the log.

There are eight matches left, with just six points separating the side in last place and the team at 12 of the 16-team Premiership.

Anchoring the table are Marumo Gallants. The Limpopo team have accumulated just 19 points from their 22 games played to date. That’s just under a point per match.

Also in the mix are perennial relegation candidates such as Maritzburg United (who are second from bottom on 21 points), Swallows and Chippa United. The last two are level on 24 points.

Maritzburg United players in a heated moment during their match with SuperSport United at Pretoria’s Lucas Moripe Stadium in February. (Photo by Lefty Shivambu/Gallo Images)

While the gap between Sundowns and the teams chasing them would put the Big Hole in Kimberley to shame, the scramble for survival promises to be a frenetic and enthrall­ing one. Though only one of the teams in the relegation dogfight truly has a reason to be sweating. Which one that is will become clear in the coming weeks.

Perfect model?

This is because under the current format, only the team that finishes last in the top flight falls down to the Motsepe Foundation Championship automatically, and the team that finishes first in the second tier is propelled straight to the Premiership.

There are then playoffs in which the team that finishes 15th in the top flight fights it out with the teams that finish second and third in the Championship, in a round-robin group format.

The team that accumulates the most points in that phase either retains its Pre­miership status, or a new team is promoted.  

However, history dictates that the one Premiership side that plays in the relegation/promotion playoffs usually trumps the two teams from the second tier to regain their status as a top-flight outfit.

Teams such as Chippa, Swallows and Maritzburg have been in the clutches of the crushing jaws of relegation in recent seasons, only to survive via the loophole that is the playoffs.

The last top-flight team to fall to the second tier of South African soccer after participating in the playoffs was the now defunct Platinum Stars, during the 2017/2018 season.

Since then, it’s been one-way traffic for top-flight teams as they have regained their status in the Premiership via the playoffs, only to find themselves in another precarious position the following campaign.  

This system of one team down and then relegation playoffs for the team that is second-last has always been a bone of contention in South African soccer. Especially considering that most leagues around the world drop the bottom two or three teams to the second tier, and then promote the top teams in the secondary league to the top flight.

Two seasons ago Premier Soccer League (PSL) chairperson Irvin Khoza explained, to the Department of Sport’s oversight committee, the logic behind only one team being relegated automatically.


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Commercial appeal

When the league in its current guise was formed, the custodians wanted to make sure that the best clubs had the best chance of retaining their Premiership status even under the threat of relegation – for financial and reputational reasons.

The PSL currently subsidises all the clubs in the league with monthly grants. However, the clubs that have public appeal also have their own private sponsors to ensure they have the best chance of remaining in the top tier of local football.

At the time the league was formed, the teams coming from the second tier weren’t as commercially appealing.

“The ideal situation is supposed to be two down and two up. But when we configured the PSL in 1996, there was a lot of give and take, a lot of sacrifices to make sure that the league is viable and the funding model is viable. Because not all the clubs at that point in time were marketable, to get sponsors. We had to find a way of how best to create an exciting, competitive league,” said Khoza.

“Fast-forward to [today], the league spends R114-million in subsidising the premier division… If you want that ideal situation, it means everybody must fend for themselves. You can’t go and subsidise and at the same time be disadvantaged. So that is a bit of a tricky situation.”

This reality exists to this day in certain instances. Though there may be exceptions, such as the case of Royal AM, who are in their third year in the league after buying out the cash-strapped Bloemfontein Celtic.

Of course, they are owned by flamboyant and well-connected KwaZulu-Natal businesswoman Shauwn Mkhize, so they had a solid foundation to help them blend into the dogged world of survival in the Premiership.

“That funding model has been understood by members [of the PSL], that relegation/promotion. If you want an ideal situation, it’s important that we do away with the grants, everyone must fend for themselves. You must come there because you are ready and have enough money to look after your promotion and relegation. Not that somebody must fund you,” continued Khoza.

“It’s a reasonable situation. It happens in England, but in a different way. Where there are three automatic relegations, but there are other playoffs. Nobody in the premier division remains because they are self-­financing in the first division of the Premier League in England.”

With these sentiments in mind, the model is unlikely to change any time soon. Sponsors flock to the teams likely to attract the most eyes, such as Sundowns, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. This despite Premiership rookies such as Sekhukhune United and Richards Bay doing well after gaining automatic promotion.

Funding for top-flight teams is R2.5-million; those in the second division get just under R1-million. This is why teams in the relegation zone will be desperate to survive.

That difference in finances can be detrimental to their existence as soccer clubs. Many clubs that have fallen into the Championship have ceased to exist, as evidenced by Platinum Stars.

Hence all the teams that find themselves in this tricky position will be desperate to use the remaining games to garner as many points as possible.

However, according to recently appointed Marumo coach Dylan Kerr, coaches are not given enough time to turn things around at these clubs that generally linger at the bottom. Kerr has been roped in to save many clubs from imminent relegation in the top flight in recent years, including Black Leopards, Baroka and most recently Swallows.

Marumo Gallants FC players look worried despite having just scored against AmaZulu
at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium in January. (Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images) 

“You’re not given the opportunity to explain your methodology and your philo­sophy because the club outside has got ­problems and has issues and it affects the people on the field. That’s the frustrating thing about it,” Kerr told Marawa Sports Worldwide.

“To build a successful club takes time. But you’re not given time here. I look at Jürgen Klopp [at Liverpool in England]… Look at the length of time he was at Liverpool without winning.

“And then all of a sudden, bang, bang, he won the trophies. He won the Premier League and won the Champions League.”

Of course, in any sphere of society, building while you’re focused on survival is a tricky undertaking.

The Gallants hierarchy will be hopeful that Kerr can pull a rabbit out of the hat once more to preserve the team’s status. Kerr will hope not to be discarded as soon as he works his magic. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

DM168 11/03 FRONT PAGE

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