So which fixture of the new season are you most looking forward to? The new champions of Bidvest Wits? The big stars of Mamelodi Sundowns? Another tussle at Athlone with the thuggish supporters of the Soweto giants? I hope it was not the reigning NFD champions of Thanda Royal Zulu because just like the successful Mpumalanga Black Aces side of two years ago the PSL is no longer their home. To most neutrals following the PSL what has happened to TRZ seems unfair, and their financial backers in the City of uMhlathuze issued a strongly worded statement condemning the sale. What should be of more concern to football as a whole in South Africa is what the sport’s governing body, FIFA, will make of all this.
At their 2005 Congress in Marrakech, FIFA created the ‘For the Good of the Game’ Task Force in an attempt to solve the problems affecting football at that time. In October 2007, nine key subjects were discussed by the task force and approved by the Executive Committee of football’s world governing body. One of these was, “Protecting the promotion and relegation system for clubs.”
This was included in the discussions because of a controversial situation that had arisen in La Liga in Spain earlier in that year. Carlos Marsá, an investor from Granada, bought Segunda División team Ciudad de Murcia and then moved them to Granada. Granada at the time were in the Spanish fourth tier so his new team (renamed Granada 74) were not only moved across the county, but they also ‘bought’ two promotions. It was effectively an amalgamation of all the worst aspects of the Cape Town City and Amazulu stories that we are living through in the PSL.
The decision was taken at the FIFA Executive Committee to protect the traditional promotion and relegation system for clubs based purely on sporting criteria. This was implemented as a “new article” within the rules governing the application of the FIFA Statutes. This all sounds a bit technical, but it is important to realise that the FIFA Statues are the basic laws of world football. National associations ignore them at their peril. The most recent set of FIFA statutes can be downloaded from their website and on page 73 clearly define the principle of promotion and relegation as being on sporting merit alone. If you allow clubs to buy promotion you open the door to possible FIFA sanctions.
A number of national football associations around the world have been suspended for infringing the FIFA Statutes. The Guatemalan Football Association (FEDEFUT) is currently suspended by FIFA, as too are Indonesia who are suspended from World Cup 2018 qualifiers and the 2019 Asian Cup. Imagine if the Cape Town City or Amazulu situation led to SAFA getting such a ban at a time when the national side have just recorded that historic victory over Nigeria in the AFCON qualifiers. FIFA typically provide a warning before taking any action, with Australia having received firmly worded warnings from FIFA regarding how they should manage promotion and relegation in their A-League. Most national suspensions so far have been for governmental interference in national football bodies (e.g., news broke of this happening to Sudan as I was writing this piece) and not the promotion and relegation statute. But why do we have to keep taking the risk? Maybe if it was a one off situation it could be overlooked, but Cape Town City one year, Amazulu the next and Moroka Swallows still sniffing around for any chance they could buy a PSL place. These practices have become commonplace in our football. The world is noticing, with the BBC publishing a scathing piece on the Amazulu and Cape Town City situation this week.
Finally this week SAFA president Danny Jordaan has spoken out against these practices and has indicated that SAFA will meet with the PSL to discuss future policy around the status of PSL clubs. Maybe he is embarrassed by the negative press that has now gone international. Maybe his contacts at FIFA have been in touch with their concerns. Maybe he actually cares about the integrity of the sport in South Africa.
Some pundits have asked the question of what should TRZ have done if they could not take up their place in the PSL for financial reasons? The answer is simple – they could have refused promotion and opted to stay in the NFD. This is clearly also not a great option for their fans, backers or players, but it is the internationally accepted option, and does not contravene FIFA statutes. At the end of the 2015/16 season in England, Cinderford Town refused promotion to the Southern League Premier Division after winning their league. The team that finished in the relegation zone of the league above them was allowed to stay up. In the Italian football scandal of 2006, Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio were all relegated as a punishment, while Messina, Lecce and Treviso were initially allowed to remain in Serie A, despite finishing in the relegation zone in the 2005–06 season. So, given this international norm why was the TRZ place in the PSL simply not just given back to Highlands Park, the side they were scheduled to replace? If they did not want it, then it could have been offered to the second placed NFD side. If all the teams above them did not want the place then eventually it could have been offered to Amazulu, whilst retaining the sporting integrity of the competition. Instead we have controversy, anger and a potential infringement of FIFA Statutes to look forward to. And sometime during the season we will have two games between Cape Town City and Amazulu, where two sides that bought their places in the competition will play in front of barely a thousand people, while sticking their fingers up at the international governing body of the sport. Is this really how we want to grow and develop the game in South Africa?