PSL: Can the tides turn for AmaZulu or are they destined for relegation?

After securing just two points in their first five games of the 2019/20 ABSA Premiership Season, the AmaZulu board gave coach Cavin Johnson the sack. Understandable fears for a club who’s no stranger to the chop of relegation. Former Polokwane City mentor, Josef Vukusic has since taken the reins at the Durban club and led them to a first league victory over Cape Town City that lifted them off the foot of the table. Even under the guidance of the Slovakia born coach who led Polokwane to a 5th place finish in the 2018/19 campaign, can AmaZulu fight the “demons” of their mediocre history or a fifth relegation chop from the top division is looming?

Usuthu themselves have known all too well that, on the wrong side of history and time is where they have frequently operated. They know they are supposed to be a big club and competing with the best there is in South Africa, so what do they do when they don’t find themselves in that position? They wing it, in an unorthodox style.
— Dennis Takaendesa, FirstTouch Africa
image courtesy of  Amazulu FC

image courtesy of Amazulu FC

The pride of the Zulu people

Most football clubs all over the world are formed or named after Metropolitan cities, they themselves tend to possess a history as rich as the cities they are named after and evolve in a strikingly similar fashion. We are talking of the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United, the Milan clubs, Olympique Lyonnais, River Plate only to mention but a few.

That’s not AmaZulu. Losely translated, the name itself means “the Zulu people.” First founded in 1932, it has since been largely recognised and appreciated as a source of pride for one of the most distinctive tribes in Southern Africa and the largest in the country. You guessed it, the Zulu tribe. A whole people with a history of dominance and assimilating other clans dating back to the periods where raiding was an economic activity in the Southern-most part of Africa. The infamous Shaka Zulu is an instance of that dominant and howbeit bloody history.

Provided one is a stranger to South African history, they could still understand the weight and pride of a team formed 87 years ago by Zulu migrant workers and had eMbelebeleni, a Royal Kraal as its headquarters. Even the influential King Zwelithini is associated with the club, at least recognised and honoured by a side who bear the name of the tribe he leads. But how much of that history and pride has translated to an equally distinctive identity on the pitch?

Not much is the shortest answer.

image courtesy of  Amazulu FC

image courtesy of Amazulu FC

A yesterday that still influences today

Old and successful clubs around the world have at least one thing in common, they sustain takeovers and reinvent themselves with time. AmaZulu haven’t been the best at this, not even second best. Numerous splits and take-overs back in time ensured the club changed names over 4 times and changed ownership at least 5 times. Different people with dissimilar visions came in and before one had successfully saw his through, change kicked in. Fundamentally, it is for that reason that one of the oldest clubs in South Africa have had to constantly find its identity while becoming an epitome of mediocrity. Their best ever finish in the top flight league since they were renamed to AmaZulu in 2005 has been 7th in the 2017/18 season which became 9th when Ajax Cape Town had their points docked for fielding an eligible player, literally the mediocre of a league boasting of 16 sides. They’ve been relegated 4 times from the division and face an uphill battle of staying alive in the ABSA Premiership after recording just 5 points after 8 games.

Just like wine, clubs are supposed to be bigger and better with age if you would consider the likes of Arsenal, Al Ahly, Orlando Pirates or TP Mazembe but that’s not AmaZulu, it’s like they are stuck on a treadmill or fell flat on their face whilst on it.

Buying PSL status

Usuthu themselves have known all too well that, on the wrong side of history and time is where they have frequently operated. They know they are supposed to be a big club and competing with the best there is in South Africa, so what do they do when they don’t find themselves in that position? They wing it, in an unorthodox style. To date, Usuthu have bought top flight status twice. Firstly, from Dynamos in 2005 when Dr. Patrick Sokhela took over the ownership of the club from from Mr. Sisa Bikisha. After Usuthu were relegated in the 2014/15 season and failed to win back promotion in the 2016/17 campaign, they returned to the top flight by purchasing the status of Thanda Royal Zulu.

This in itself underlies one of the problems in the culture of the club; preferring shorter routes to success rather than systematic and patient building.

Denis Suarez of Manchester City beats the Amazulu defense during the Nelson Mandela Football Invitational match between AmaZulu and Manchester City at Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 18, 2013 in Durban, South Africa.  (July 17, 2013 - Source: Gallo Images/Getty Images Europe)

Denis Suarez of Manchester City beats the Amazulu defense during the Nelson Mandela Football Invitational match between AmaZulu and Manchester City at Moses Mabhida Stadium on July 18, 2013 in Durban, South Africa.

(July 17, 2013 - Source: Gallo Images/Getty Images Europe)

Ambition assessment

In light of history and even their status now, how ambitious are they really? Very ambitious in my opinion. Just in 2012, when they celebrated their 80th year since formation, they played a friendly match with Premier League side, Manchester United which they narrowly lost 1-0, mingling with the big guys, just as other big teams do. Their fundamental issue possibly remains not the desire or ambition to stay in the top flight or even better, for titles, but how they go about doing it. For the longest time, there hasn’t been real evidence of grassroots work and structures to support such dreams and henceforth they remain castles in the air. Over the years, they have built their house without a proper foundation or had the foundation flipped and switched before the house could stand; no wonder they are where they are right now.

A future they want vs an all too familiar one

As mentioned earlier on, with only 5 points won after 8 matches and sitting not so pretty on 15th position, the fight for survival could get even uglier with rock-bottom Chippa United expected to benefit from the “new manager bounce,” after acquiring the services of Norman Mapeza who led Zimbabwean side, FC Platinum to two consecutive league titles in the past two seasons. Their new gaffer, Vukusic is no stranger to the PSL having led Polokwane City to a 5th place finish last term, but his appointment comes as a mere mercenary like acquisition and is needed to ironically help one of the oldest South African clubs, find their identity.

Should they be relegated, it could be tougher trying to buy another club’s PSL status these days and they will have no choice but to really built sustainably. As of now, they have to build that ship as it sails, still 22 more games to go in the season, a lot can still change.

There is a future they want and ought to have by virtue of their long history and there is that one which has ocassionally followed them, that fight for stability continues.