When the 2021/22 DStv Premiership season was to be officially concluded on Saturday, May 21, all eyes were on the tightly-contested relegation battle where TS Galaxy, Swallows FC and Baroka FC had one game to decide who would get automatic relegation to the GladAfrica Championship, who would finish 15th and get a second bite at the cherry by playing in the Promotion/Relegation play-offs and who would be safe from the two stressful situations out of the three last teams on the log standings.
It is history now that Baroka suffered automatic relegation after a 1-0 loss away to Maritzburg United, while a 2-all draw away to Kaizer Chiefs was enough to ensure a second chance for Swallows, with Galaxy emerging safe from the dreaded drop after beating Chippa United 1-0 at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Now you must be wondering what the heck does any of this have to do with Fair Play or where is this column headed, as there was no cloud of controversy over the last games of the season? Don’t worry, buckle up, and you will soon find out everything you need to know.
A week before the final curtain would fall on the league campaign, Chippa visited Swallows and played to a goalless draw, which effectively secured the Gqeberha-based club’s topflight status and moved them away from the relegation battle. Straight after that match, the Chilli Boys’ head coach, Kurt Lentjies, revealed that he would be making a cameo appearance in the team’s last game of the season to signal his retirement from the game. Lentjies was ‘forced’ into retirement following coach Gavin Hunt’s departure from the Chippa hotseat almost halfway through the season, when club chairman Siviwe “Chippa” Mpengesi decided to hand him the responsibility of looking after the team for the remainder of the season. “As the chairman promised me, I played my last game against Maritzburg United, so I will definitely walk onto the field to play 27 minutes for my farewell in the next game. I will play for 27 minutes and coach for the rest of the time. This was the agreement between myself and the chairman,” revealed the soft-spoken 37-year-young mentor, in part.
As per the agreement between the coach and club chairman, Lentjies walked onto the field in Chilli Boys’ starting line-up but, instead of lasting for 27 minutes – to represent his jersey number – he was on the field for 12 minutes before being replaced by Eva Nga, in what was an obviously emotional moment for the former attacking midfielder. This was also an emotional moment for everyone associated with United, considering the hard work that had been accomplished thus far. Ironically, no one saw anything wrong with the move to have the home coach in the starting line-up in an official game. No one saw the red flag when coach Kurt broke the news about his pending appearance in the starting line-up and stop it, not even the League! No one even cared to consider the impact that ‘wonderful gesture’ would have in the bigger scheme of things. Detach yourself from your emotions before you continue reading, so that you can be driven by facts and not emotions. Breathe in and out before you continue, so that you don’t misconstrue the remainder of this column as an attack on Chippa.
At face value, this was a wonderful gesture from the club to show their appreciation for a young coach who was registered as a player at the beginning of the season, only to be tasked with the responsibility of saving the club’s status, which he delivered on. With no coaching experience, Lentjies managed to ensure that Chippa United remained in the elite league even next season. If Chippa were still in the relegation battle, in desperate need for maximum points like Galaxy, Swallows and Baroka, would they have turned that crucial game into some form of a testimonial game for their head coach? They certainly would never have risked it, but they saw fit to ‘take things easy’ against Galaxy because their topflight status was not threatened in any way. In other words, facing Galaxy was just a formality because they had to honour the fixture. Once again, it was a good gesture for the club to give Lentjies a chance to say his farewell to the supporters, but surely that coul have been done some other time. Maybe if they were playing against Mamelodi Sundowns, there would not be any issues as the Tshwane giants had already won the league title, but to do so against one of the teams fighting for their lives is both unprofessional and unethical!
If you’re talking about competition, Fair Play, teams that are fighting for their lives in the relegation zone, the integrity of the league and levelling the playing fields – which is exactly why all the last games were played at the same time – then you have to ask a number of questions as to why Chippa was allowed to do what they did on the day. Had Chippa lost their penultimate game against Swallows, would they have used their last game to officially signal their coach’s retirement? Absolutely not! Where does this put the competition among those who are not safe from automatic relegation and finishing 15th? Where does this put the integrity of our league? Whether you like it or not, Galaxy went into their last game with an unfair advantage against Baroka and Swallows, taking nothing away from Galaxy’s efforts. Here is a team fielding a player who hasn’t kicked a ball in an official match for over four months because they want to celebrate him, and you call that a competitive match? Are you going to argue that the level of competition was not compromised on the day, even if Lentjies lasted just for 12 minutes? If you’ve ever been on the field, you will appreciate what sentimental moments like those do to the psyche of the players as they will, unwittingly, stay in the moment and just celebrate their own. That game had a lot to do in determining not just Galaxy’s fate but that of Swallows and Baroka as well.
When you look at it, once again without downplaying Galaxy’s endeavours, you have to question Chippa’s seriousness about their last game, with their status safely secured. In essence, both Baroka and Swallows would have loved to be in Galaxy’s position where they would be facing a team that is just there to honour the fixture and celebrate their coach rather than fighting competitively to win the game. Yes, Chippa had every right to do whatever they want with their team, but they certainly put the league into disrepute on the day. You can argue until the cows come home, the bottom line is that Chippa would never have played coach Lentjies in their last game if they were in Baroka, Galaxy or Swallows’ position going into the last game. Surely that should tell you everything you need to know. Coach Kurt couldn’t have said it any better, after drawing against Swallows, when he said, “It’s a good thing that we are safe (from relegation), so I get to play for the last time. Had we lost, there was no way I would be playing against Galaxy when we need points to survive.”