We should all tip a hat to the little stars of Bethlehem
A small, family-owned football club in the Free State is punching way above its weight, with a Nedbank Cup semifinal against Kaizer Chiefs up next
Free State Stars’ offices stand in a two-storey, rustic – most buildings in Bethlehem are rustic – building opposite the redbrick town hall in the centre of the little Free State city.
They’re quite impressive for a small club.
There’s a canteen downstairs where players get fed lunch daily, a fan shop, and above them a well-equipped gym and a presentation/press conference room.
An adjoining building houses offices for the technical and administration staff.
Just outside the town – outskirts enough to be surrounded by mielie fields (of course, this is the Free State) – Stars’ fiery Belgian Uefa Pro Licence coach Luc Eymael puts his team through their paces in high-energy, dynamic training sessions at the club’s academy.Again, it’s all very neat, with two well-grassed, smooth-surface training fields, and a house for the youth players to live in, where inside in the common room some are watching soapies on morning TV.
Like their offices, in the middle of the city, Stars have become central to this corner of the country.
Traditionally they’ve played at the feared Goble Park in Bethlehem, or surrounded by dramatic scenery at the axis point where the Drakensberg meets the Malutis at Charles Mopeli Stadium in Phuthaditjhaba.Yet, at the beginning of a season in which Eymael has take the team to fifth place in the Absa Premiership, and Saturday’s Nedbank Cup semifinal against Kaizer Chiefs at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium, the club were up for sale, and not for the first time.
Last season Stars flirted with the drop to the abyss of the National First Division, surviving relegation by a point.
With the Mokoenas’ national construction and catering businesses that operate out of Bethlehem struggling, the precarious existence of a small, family-owned football club that costs millions to keep competitive seemed all too much again.Now Stars’ owners are happy to continue, said their big, amiable general manager Rantsi Mokoena, son of chairman and owner Mike.
“Look, I think we tried to explain the reasons for the sale for the longest time. And you know how things change every year,” he said, seated behind his desk in a row of upstairs club offices this week.“The family was under financial stress. In football generally in this country the majority of clubs are funded directly by their owners. The burden is huge.
“It was the third or fourth year that we had lost Bonitas [as sponsors], from which we had absorbed a R13-milllion deficit. With business slow, we really felt it. But things have picked up.
“And this thing, it’s just passion. If I wasn’t born into this I would never run a football club.
“And, ja, the answer is: ‘No’ [we’re not selling].”
These are the challenges clubs outside of the big three giants, and big corporate-backed sides like SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits – the Chippa Uniteds, Maritzburg Uniteds, Polokwane Citys, Baroka FCs – face from year to year.Increasingly these clubs are taking development more seriously as a means of sustainability, selling players from their academies, or scouted in Africa, each season to balance the books.
It’s a tricky juggling act. Ea Lla Koto might be on a high this season, and the owners are happy again. It just takes Eymael getting poached by Chiefs or SuperSport, and the club can be right back on the tightrope balancing act again.
For now, Stars are enjoying that high, and chasing their first trophy in the post-1996 Premier Soccer League era.
Their only other silverware came as QwaQwa Stars, beating Hellenic 3-2 in a classic Coca-Cola Cup (now Telkom Knockout) final in Phuthaditjhaba in 1994.Stars have a trio of players with experience at semifinal and final level – former Orlando Pirates defenders Rooi Mahamutsa and Patrick Phungwayo, and veteran 34-year-old defensive midfielder Paulus Masehe, who in his younger days was a striker at Mamelodi Sudnowns.
They will have to settle the nerves of the youngsters and those who haven’t been this far in a cup competition.
“Nobody gave us a chance at the beginning of the season,” Phungwayo said.
“And what we’re saying is what we believe – that if we reach the final anything is possible.“In the semifinal it’s about on the day. And this season we’ve shown that we can compete with any team.”
Eymael’s sessions are a war, players getting stuck in like it’s a competitive match. At one stage Masehe rears up when a youngster inadvisably becomes entangled, and lashes out an elbow. Don’t get behind the rear legs of a warhorse.
Predictably, the fighting talk came from the captain.
“Yeah, we do have what it takes, but we know that it’s not going to be easy,” Masehe, who joined a select group of players to pass 300 PSL caps this year, said.
“We’re going to have to sweat blood, try and fight hard, and give everything that you have.
“We’ve reached semifinals. I think it’s four Nedbank semis since I’ve been here. I think it’s time for us to go to a final.
“And I know that once we make it to a final we’re going for it big. The last time we achieved something was in 1994. Now we have to really double our efforts to put that record straight.”