A tattered flag bearing a blue ace has seen better days. So has the team it supports, Mpumalanga Black Aces. In the fading light of a Friday night at the Mbombela Stadium, on the outskirts of Nelspruit in the north eastern South African province of Mpumalanga, the new mice to the South African Premier Soccer League (PSL) run out against fat cats Kaizer Chiefs. Chiefs, who are awash with cash from sponsors and the sale of thousands of shirts, throng into the stadium. Aces don’t even have a stadium.
The biggest contrast is what you can’t see. Holding the flag stubbornly is Njabula Simelane, a die-hard Aces fan. Simelane is Mandlesive High School’s art teacher and wanted to see his side so badly he brought exam papers with him. He marked them in his seat, shoving them in his backpack just before kick-off.
“I would not have missed this game for anything. Aces playing Chiefs; I’ve waited two years for this,” says Simelane.
Aces are one of oldest clubs in South Africa, a club long in history but short on budget. They clawed their way back into Africa’s richest football league after two years in the wilderness of the first division.
Simelane personifies the kind of loyal support upon which African football has been built. Sadly, in the modern game of 2013, it’s the corporate box that rules. Any club that hopes to stand a chance of competing needs cash as much as a fleet-footed striker.
The way Aces started this season is a sign of the desperate times. Two days before their season opener, the club was homeless. Black Aces had to rent Mbombela Stadium far from home. Aces’ home, in Witbank, is a 220km drive away from Mbombela. Roelf Koetze, Mbombela Stadium’s manager, says the game drew a bigger crowd than expected. Twenty-two thousand fans flocked in at short notice.
Finding a home ground for the homeless PSL side is Gordan Masondo, Black Aces’ communication manager, a man with a rich history in South African football clubs, from Manning Rangers to Durban Bush Bucks. Masondo spent two weeks, with two cellphones in each hand, driving across the province trying to find something. The wheeling and dealing paid off. Masondo says Aces settled for two home clubs instead of one. The club announced that its main home ground would this time be a 100km drive from Witbank, at the Kees Taljaard Stadium, in the small town of Middelburg. Aces’ second ground would be at Mbombela, to cater for any bigger games like against Orlando Pirates later on in the year.
If fans want to see the stars there is a heavy price for talent. Black Aces hired Clive Barker to coach this year and he signed 19 new players. The most expensive is former Ajax Cape Town striker Mabhuti Khenyeza. According to statistics website Transfermarkt.com, the Zimbabwean born Khenyeza is worth R5.5 million ($544,000). Chief’s most expensive player is South African national, Bernard Parker, worth R13.8 million ($1.4 million).
In Mbombela, Chiefs’ starting 11 averaged R99 million ($9.8 million), in contrast to Aces’ R19 million ($1.8 million).
Overall, Chiefs has a squad worth $13.8 million. Aces has less than half of that with $6.2 million.
The action may be in the corporate stands, but this is an unmistakably African night. The smoke from the open fires in the township outside reflects light for miles; the waves of yellow and blue shirts undulate as shots flash past the post; the faint echo of taxi hooters floating in from the parking lot. The loudest cacophony comes when Parker scores the winning goal in the sixth minute. Aces fans dream of the day, when they too can swarm into a stadium with thousands of vuvuzelas.
But so goes the story of a few aces among a deck of Chiefs. This is still a dream—and an expensive one at that.