Sport

SOCCER

Stellar Stellenbosch reaping the rewards of hard work, shrewd recruitment and patience

Stellar Stellenbosch reaping the rewards of hard work, shrewd recruitment and patience
Andre De Jong of Stellenbosch FC during their clash with TS Galaxy at Mbombela Stadium, Nelspruit, South Africa. 21 April 2024. (Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images)

Stellenbosch is on course for its best-ever finish in the DStv Premiership, in addition to winning a maiden major trophy. The team’s success is no fluke though.  

South African soccer club Stellenbosch has undergone a number of transformations over the last few years. The team’s current incarnation is undoubtedly its best to date.

Stellenbosch currently sit second in the DStv Premiership, a position which has essentially become as good as first place in light of Mamelodi Sundowns’ perennial dominance of South Africa’s top-flight.

Teams measure their quality by how close they can finish to Masandawana in the league. The Brazilians have made the Premiership their fiefdom and are on the brink of clinching a seventh title on the trot.

Stellar season

Stellies are currently in pole position to claim the coveted second spot, which comes with Champions League participation. Though Orlando Pirates are keeping the Western Cape-based side sharp as they also ferociously pursue the precious runner-up spot.

While Lehlohonolo Seema’s Sekhukhune United is an outsider to steal second should Stellies or Pirates both capitulate with the finish line in sight. That is unlikely though.

Stellenbosch and their long-time coach Steve Barker have already tasted sweet success this season. In December 2023, they won the inaugural Carling Knockout Cup, which was launched in place of the Telkom Knockout. They defeated TS Galaxy 5-4 on penalties to clinch the cup.

The trophy was the team’s first in the top-flight, as well as being the first major trophy for Barker as well. Instead of basking in the glory of this rare success for the Stellies, Barker said it should become more common for the Cape Winelands club.

“There aren’t always many opportunities to win a trophy. We won our first major trophy as a club in the Carling Knockout. And that was a great feeling. I’m trusting that a culture of winning will become part of our DNA,” Barker said.

His players have taken this to heart, as evidenced by their current league position. As well as the fact that the only team that has lost less league games than Stellies’ five is Sundowns (with zero losses so far this season).

Barker’s men are also on the cusp of qualifying for the final of the Nedbank Cup. However, they face a tough test in the form of Sundowns in the semifinals.

If they upset Masandawana and set themselves up perfectly to clinch a second major trophy, it will be the best season in the club’s not-so-long history.

Anicet Oura of Stellenbosch FC

Anicet Oura of Stellenbosch FC and Pogiso Sanoka of TS Galaxy. (Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images)

Pause. Rewind

Just how did the team arrive at the level they are in currently?

It all started in 2016 when Vasco Da Gama, a team that was campaigning in the South African second tier of soccer (Motsepe Foundation Championship) moved from Parow to Stellenbosch and rebranded itself. Thus, Stellenbosch was born.

Then two years after the team’s change of name, Remgro — which is headed by South African billionaire Johan Rupert — took over the club.

The new owners made Stellies the main character of Stellenbosch Academy of Sport, a subsidiary of Remgro. Through this branch of its numerous interests, the multi-product company seeks to grow its social impact footprint.

This was just the boost that the club needed as they earned promotion to the Premiership at the culmination of 2018/2019 season after finishing first in the Championship.

Stellies marginally survived relegation the following season after placing 14th during the 2020/2021 campaign. They ended the campaign six points ahead of the relegated Black Leopards during that campaign.

That’s just the wake-up call they needed as the following season Stellenbosch finished fourth in the DStv Premiership — a club record, for now.

Kamogelo Sebelebele of TS Galaxy FC and Fawaaz Basadien of Stellenbosch FC

Kamogelo Sebelebele of TS Galaxy FC and Fawaaz Basadien of Stellenbosch FC. (Photo: Dirk Kotze/Gallo Images)

Strategic recruitment

Despite having ownership that if they decided to, could challenge Sundowns in the transfer market, Stellies has focused more on shrewd recruitment and the grooming of young players.

An example of the former approach to transfers is goalkeeper Sage Stephens, who joined the Maroons in 2020 after spending time on the books of teams such as Moroka Swallows, AmaZulu and Cape Town City.

He has been a vital cog in the team’s growth and success since then. As has another exceptional recruit, Ivorian defender Ismaël Touré. Stellenbosch signed the defender from Marumo Gallants after the latter was relegated last season.

Then there are homegrown talents such as Antonio Van Wyk, Devin Titus and Bafana Bafana midfielder Jayden Adams, among others.

Barker, who is the nephew of the late Clive Barker (who coached Bafana Bafana to their one and only Africa Cup of Nations title), says what they have done over the years is finally bearing fruit, as well as winning them new fans.

“Success brings fans. It’s the way it is when you’re winning and doing well. Some players are starting to become household names,” Barker told journalists after their most recent league match, when they smashed Polokwane City 5-0.

“Jayden Adams… The quality that he’s playing at sometimes, it seems like he’s playing at a different pace and level,” Barker — who has been at the helm since 2017 — said.

“Devin Titus is growing in stature. Obviously, Iqraam [Rayners] is well-known. But credit must also go to our defence.

“A player like Ismail Toure has brought presence, solidity and confidence in the backline. Sage [Stephens] is having a really good season in goal. Our recipe right now is working,” the former AmaZulu coach added. DM 

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