Manti Mekoa of Stellenbosch FC during the Nedbank Cup match against Kaizer Chiefs. Picture: THINUS MARITZ/GALLO IMAGES
Manti Mekoa of Stellenbosch FC during the Nedbank Cup match against Kaizer Chiefs. Picture: THINUS MARITZ/GALLO IMAGES

Hanging over the local football landscape is an unmistakable cloud of déjà vu.

The same high-profile clubs play the same derbies at the same time of the year. The winners of the league come from a precious handful of clubs (no Leicester or Lincoln City miracles here), and Bafana Bafana regularly fail to qualify for showpiece events like the Africa Cup of Nations. While names and scorelines might differ, the view from the grandstand seat looks frighteningly like it did five and 10 years ago.

From Stellenbosch, of all places, a different story. Last August, a Gauteng-based consortium bought the remaining minority shares in the Bellville-based Vasco da Gama, a club — it is fair to say — with a record of feisty underachievement.

Their home ground of Parow Park was known as a fortress, but come the end of the season and Vasco’s challenge traditionally melted away. It was no different in the National First Division (NFD) last season, with Vasco hanging on to their status by a priceless point or two after having loitered dangerously close to the relegation zone for a couple of months.

With the Vasco franchise safely pocketed by the consortium, Stellenbosch FC was born and relocated. Unlike so many clubs that seem to bumble along on league grants, Stellenbosch are galvanised by a strategic vision. The Cape Winelands is a natural nursery for good amateur footballers and though Stellenbosch is associated with rugby, those behind the club, like strategy officer Ashley Kotzin, see themselves poised on the cusp of change.

We’re hoping for change — that good administration and good facilities will capture local commercial attention
Ashley Kotzin

“We’re developing the football ecosystem,” he says. “The game is well administered in the Cape Winelands and widely played through Cloetesville High, a local high school. It is big in townships like Kayamandi and Idas Valley and we’re branching out into other areas. We’ve received support from the university and use their facilities and we have a relationship with the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport (SAS) who offer world-class indoor and outdoor training facilities and on-site accommodation.”

SAS is ultimately owned by Remgro, and therein lies another prong of the club’s strategy. They hope to reach into the heart of the Afrikaans business community — Remgro, Steinhoff and Capitec are all located in the Winelands — and make local football sexy, relevant and fun to a constituency that has traditionally shunned the sport. “Before 2010 there was no soccer at the university. Stellenbosch people didn’t identify, they had corporate governance quibbles and soccer didn’t feel like a natural fit,” says Kotzin.

“But we’re hoping that will change — that good administration and good facilities will capture local commercial attention.”

Stellenbosch FC had their moment in the sun at Athlone Stadium on Saturday night, when they played Kaizer Chiefs in the last 32 of the Nedbank Cup. With their journeymen and “didn’t quite make it” hopefuls, they gave a spirited account of themselves to hold Chiefs to 0-0 at half-time, but the visitors whittled away at their resolve in the second half, scoring three without reply. It wasn’t the result Stellenbosch wanted, but at least the tie demonstrated what is needed to compete with the big boys in the PSL Promised Land.

Diego Brown of Stellenbosch FC during the Nedbank Cup match against Kaizer Chiefs. Picture: THINUS MARITZ/GALLO IMAGES
Diego Brown of Stellenbosch FC during the Nedbank Cup match against Kaizer Chiefs. Picture: THINUS MARITZ/GALLO IMAGES

“We’re in with a shout of promotion at the end of the season and it’s anyone’s guess who gets promoted,” says Kotzin. “The top NFD side gets automatically promoted and then two and three battle it out with the second-last side from the PSL. We play Santos, who are bottom, in our last league game of the season. It might be our most important game of the year.”

Stellenbosch FC don’t have a youth structure or club feeder scheme, which is surely a black mark on a club that pride themselves on being integrated into the local community. This, though, is likely to change, as the club begin to put down roots.

With a “pipeline” established between junior age-group teams and the first XI, Stellenbosch FC will become a more integrated, top-to-bottom force.

There is not enough vitality in the local leagues and too much excitement is “manufactured” through the PSL’s increasingly cosy relationship with SuperSport and a generation of embedded football journalists. It is true that there are some bright stars in the dull firmament, with Luther Singh’s recent transfer to Braga and Keagan Dolly’s move from Sundowns to Montpellier reasons for cautious optimism. Then there’s the national under-20s’ recent qualification through Africa for the Under-20 World Cup.

And, of course, the yeoman behind-the-scenes work quietly taking place in the Winelands.

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