The break in PSL action drags on and on, but there is plenty of football action around if you know where to look. Friendly games at Ikamva, the European leagues all back and on TV, and international football from the AFCON. What a pleasure to see Khama Billiat performing so well for Zimbabwe in their opening game with Algeria. Not always the most popular player with the supporters at AjaxCT, but like so many young players his development while at the club was clear for all to see. The game was all about Riyad Mahraz in the build-up – English premiership winner and now the most valuable African footballer in the world. Over the 90 minutes Mahraz got the goals, but as a playmaker the former AjaxCT man was just as influential.
Aside from the big names, amongst all this televised football there have also been several Multichoice Diski Fixtures to watch. With lots of goalmouth action. The two games featuring the AjaxCT MDC side have produced 14 goals. There are currently five PSL sides that have not managed to score more goals than this in exactly half a season of football. If you are not following this competition I urge you to tune into DStv next Saturday when the MDC side is again in televised action against Mamelodi Sundowns.
The MDC is essentially a development programme – and not just for footballers. It provides internships to develop broadcasting skills among the youth, coaching clinics for the backroom staff and a chance for community television channels on DStv to broadcast the MDC matches. The whole local football industry should see all-round benefits from this competition for years to come.
In the meantime it seems the games are becoming even more popular than the PSL. Away from the cautious tactics of under pressure coaches, the MDC games are often more open and there are chances – and goals – galore. In the same weekend that AjaxCT beat CTC 5-3, Polokwane City scored five and Bloemfontein Celtic scored six. Even the Soweto derby finished 2-2. The way this game is played by the senior sides, the supporters would be lucky to see four attacks on goal let alone four actual goals. To be honest the quality can be variable and many of these goals result from rookie mistakes. There has been some poor defending and discipline from AjaxCT in the last two weeks, but for the neutral it all adds to the entertainment.
In addition to the attacking football, the competition is proving popular because it is free and accessible. Last week’s round in Bloemfontein had slightly disappointing crowds, but the week before in Gauteng was virtually a full house. Taking away the high ticket prices and playing games in smaller grounds closer to the supporters has encouraged people to come and watch. Surely some food for thought for those who think our local footballs problems can be cured by marketing campaigns and trendy hashtags.
One of the things that AjaxCT have done well in recent MDC games is to treat them as reserve games rather than solely development fixtures. The side has featured many of the young players that are currently on the fringes of the first team, but has also been used to field senior players that are recovering from injury or lacking sharpness after missing first team games in recent months. It has been nice to finally get an extended glimpse of Lebogang Mokoena, although he still looks to have work to do to break into the first team side.
Perhaps more interesting was the appearance of Nathan Paulse in these games. The big man volunteered to play for the MDC side because he felt he was lacking game time after recovering from injury. This is of course what we should expect from a professional, but it is not always the case with experienced footballers who feel they have reached the big time. Around the world many footbllers show a lack of respect to reserve football. Spanish goalkeeper Victor Valdes refused to play for the reserves at Manchester United and was run out of the club by Louis van Gaal. Across the city German international Dietmar Hamann had to be forced to play reserve football as a punishment by Mark Hughes when he managed Manchester City. Full marks to all those professionals that volunteer to turn up and help to improve their fitness, while also developing the youngsters.
Paulse gave CTC huge problems two weeks ago, but was more effectively kept under control by a more organised Orlando Pirates on Saturday. Too often he had to come deep to collect the ball and there were only a few moments where he was able to link up with Mokoena and the wide players to create genuine danger. Perhaps his presence in the side just caught CTC by surprise. It led to an uncomfortable game for the owners son in the goal, who spent much of the morning flapping at the high balls that were meat and drink to Paulse. It could have become a really embarrassing scoreline if the AjaxCT youngsters had not lost their heads and picked up the late red cards that allowed City back into the game. This result is not going to have much influence on what will happen when the senior sides meet next month, but if either side were to have an injury crisis in the second half of the season it is clear who has the better back up players ready to step up.