As if the derby weekend was not bad enough, we awoke to fresh controversy last Monday when Kick-Off magazine ran a story informing us that the home fixture against Kaizer Chiefs would now be played in Durban. So began a week of anger and frustration, in which the picture slowly became clear thanks to more in-depth media reporting and the regular supporters meeting with CEO Ari Efstathiou. I suspect we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of the politics and negotiations that are ongoing regarding the fixture, but even the harshest critics of AjaxCT must feel some sympathy for their predicament. It is also worth noting that across the city the owner of CTC FC is on record as saying he would take games back to Mpumalanga under similar circumstances.
What we know as fans is as follows. Cape Town Stadium will be unavailable next Saturday due to the Ultra Music Festival, which was announced on 27 July 2016. This was about the same time as the PSL fixtures were announced. AjaxCT initially asked Kazier Chiefs if they could swap the home and away fixtures, but Chiefs refused. AjaxCT then tried to rearrange the fixture and offered four alternative dates. In a season which has just seen a 48 day break with no games, and that has been extended to accommodate Sundowns long and tiring schedule, there are plenty of free dates. But Chiefs refused. PSL rules require both teams to agree to any change in the date of a scheduled fixture.
So it was down to alternative venues, with first choice Newlands unavailable due to the start of the super rugby season. This left Athlone Stadium, which has of course accommodated Chiefs games in the past and is currently scheduled to host the upcoming Nedbank Cup game between Chiefs and Stellenbosch. Despite the Kick-Off report on Monday it was clear that at the time of Wednesday’s supporters meeting that Athlone was still under consideration, the PSL were listing it as the venue and Chiefs actually went ahead and confirmed the venue the following day.
But……it is not that simple. Supporters that attended last season’s game against Sundowns at Athlone will remember the chaotic security. With thousands of ticketless fans milling around in the car park and extremely slow turnstiles there was a massive crowd outside the ground as the game kicked off. A huge surge of fans against the security fences resulted in AjaxCT requesting the police open the gates and let people through – even if they did not have tickets. Remember this game took place just one day after the Hillsborough inquest verdict which had made international headlines as 96 Liverpool fans were declared to have been “unlawfully killed” in very similar circumstances. A few weeks earlier we had mourned the deaths of 43 South Africans on the 15th anniversary of the Ellis Park stadium disaster. Despite acting in the best interests of the supporters outside it seems that the police at the time and later the PSL did not agree with opening the gates. AjaxCT were subsequently fined and issued with a further suspended fine if such a situation occurred again. You can therefore understand the club’s concerns about using Athlone for a game that has previously attracted 30-35,000 supporters, when the stadium has a capacity of just 22,000.
It seems that the club has been in negotiation with police and city disaster management services for some time to try and resolve this. There has been a suggestion to close off the entire approach to the stadium, but of course this would make car parking unavailable and impact on one of the city’s main roads. It just does not look feasible and eventually the SAPS advised both clubs not to play at the venue. Presumably similar discussions are occurring with Stellenbosch regarding the Nedbank Cup, but unless a miraculous new plan is tabled, which somehow guarantees fan safety, we can assume we will not be seeing an AjaxCT vs Chiefs game at this venue any time soon.
Knowing these problems AjaxCT were forced to look further afield. With NMB Stadium also unavailable due to super rugby the only other coastal option was Durban, and the club have paid a deposit to book Moses Mahbida Stadium. A little more flexibility from Chiefs and the whole saga could have been avoided, but of course they know that AjaxCT had these problems to face and stood to benefit by not helping. If no venue could be found the PSL has the right to decide and unless AjaxCT acted to book Durban there was every chance it could have been moved up north to FNB Stadium – a massive advantage to Chiefs. Chiefs would have known this and therefore not wanted to be flexible.
So where to from here? Personally I would have liked to play the game behind closed doors at Athlone Stadium. That way Chiefs still have to travel – as is their duty – and the AjaxCT squad could have spent the night before a home game with their families in their own homes – as is their right. We would all see the game on TV anyway. I understand there are issues with sponsors, but given the outrageous scenes at Loftus just over a week ago, a time must surely come when aggressive behaviour by supporters leads to some games being played behind closed doors as a punishment and to set a reminder for future conduct. There are already calls to play the forthcoming Soweto Derby behind closed doors. Sadly in the AjaxCT v Chiefs case, there is a risk that masses of ‘away’ supporters would turn up and try and get into the stadium anyway, creating yet another security situation that the home side would have to take responsibility for.
The ultimate responsibility for this mess should lie with the PSL. They know that our clubs do not own stadiums. If they want a league that operates on a fair and consistent, home and away basis, like the rest of the world, they need to show leadership and help clubs to move fixtures when extreme situations arise. Even a 24 hr move would have given local supporters the chance to watch the game at Newlands in this case. The PSL should arbitrate on fixture movements and not let one club with a vested interest hold another club to ransom. Instead we have a league where clubs are allowed to move their home games all over the nation. Chiefs already play ‘home’ games at Durban. Supersport now play ‘home’ games in Mpumalanga after the PSL allowed somebody to relocate the local community’s real PSL team. Much credit has to be given to AjaxCT for being the only PSL club to offer a season ticket and for doing their best to develop a footballing community in the city. If you supported any of the northern sides and lived locally to them would you dare to buy a season ticket given their love of willingly abandoning their home stadiums?
The next time you hear the PSL telling the world about how great their product is and how it is up there with the great leagues in the world, please remind them of this. This season we have the utterly absurd situation whereby Chiefs moved their home game with AjaxCT to Durban because not enough Chiefs fans turn up, whereas AjaxCT moved their home game with Chiefs to Durban because too many Chiefs turn up. Go figure!