It’s probably fair to say that a new trend is emerging with New Zealand’s footballers. And this trend is now also beginning to spread to New Zealand’s neighbours to the west as well. That trend is for players to move to South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
Whilst the trend is only now becoming apparent, we’d have to go back to 1997 to find the root. It was then that former All White stopper, Michael Utting, packed his bags and moved to South Africa’s largest city, Johannesburg, to take up a professional contract with then-named Wits University. He would spend two seasons with the Wits and make 15 appearances before returning to New Zealand to sign for the country’s first professional club, the Football Kingz.
The stay in Auckland lasted only one season, however, and Utting was soon on his way back to South Africa again. This time, he went to the nation’s capital, Pretoria, and signed for Supersport United where he spent another two seasons and made 62 appearances. And it is at this club that much of this story is centred around, even though Utting probably had no idea he would become a trail blazer for future players All Whites.
Supersport United were originally called Pretoria City and the club had a history going back into the pre-democratic days and South Africa’s white leagues, before merging with Berea Park. When the club then became Pretoria City again in later years, it was not part of the newly “mixed” Premier Soccer League (then named the Castle National Soccer League) that formed in 1985. For the first time, white, black, coloured and Indian teams were allowed to compete in the same league structure.
In 1994, Pretoria City was purchased by South African television giant, M-Net. They renamed the club Supersport United for the 1996-97 season, in honour of the company’s popular pay-per-view sports TV channels.
THE NEW TREND
In more recent times, the first Kiwi to arrive was Jeremy Brockie, with the Christchurch-native no stranger to South African shores. In 2009 Brockie was feted for his performances in the Confederations Cup that took place as a pre-cursor to the World Cup in South Africa. In 2010, Brockie returned again as the All Whites competed in the World Cup. Ricki Herbert’s side went home at the first hurdle, but remained unbeaten, which included the very creditable 1-1 draw with Italy.
Following two-and-a-half years with the Wellington Phoenix in the Hyundai A-League, Brockie signed a contract for the same timeframe with Supersport United. Coach, Gordon Igesund, was sufficiently impressed with the New Zealander after previously having seen him play against his Bafana Bafana side when South Africa visited Australasia for two friendlies in the off-season. He made an electric start by scoring on his debut in a 1-0 win at Mpumalanga Black Aces in January of this year. But perhaps the most important goal he netted was in the 2-0 defeat of the would-be champions, Kaizer Chiefs in February. He managed 8 goals from just 13 games overall and was the subject of a multi-million Rand bid from PSL heavyweights, Mamelodi Sundowns, during the off-season. This has since been rejected by Supersport United.
For the 2015-16 campaign, Brockie will be joined by compatriot, Michael Boxall. The 26-year-old centre-half made his debut for Supersport in a pre-season tournament called the Cape Town Cup, where the Pretorians took on English Premier League side, Crystal Palace. He may soon have some stiff competition for the central defensive role as the club are reportedly close to signing former Tottenham centre-half, Bongani Khumalo, on a 3 year deal. Khumalo was previously with Supersport before moving to England.
Chris James, the former Fulham and All Whites midfielder, was also on trial with Supersport United this off-season. He had spent a month training with the side and playing in certain pre-season friendlies. However, Gordon Igesund was not convinced and has not offered the Wellingtonian a contract. James had been with French side, Sedan, last season and it remains to be seen where he will play his football in the coming campaign.
There must be something about Pretoria for Kiwis because Brockie, Boxall and James are not the only players to have arrived in the city. Former Under-21 international, Harry Edge, has signed for fellow PSL club, University of Pretoria.
Commonly referred to AmaTuks, the side is coached by Northern Irishman, Sammy Troughton, who spotted Edge when playing against Dutch side, PEC Zwolle, in the Netherlands this off-season. Impressed with the youngster’s energy and versatility, he offered Edge a permanent contract. Able to play in central defence or central midfield, Edge was a member of PEC Zwolle’s Under-21 side last season but was not offered a contract extension beyond this summer. The former Western Suburbs and Ole Academy player will now call the ABSA Tuks Stadium home and will hope for better than the club produced last season. AmaTuks avoided relegation by 2 points in 2014-15, in 13th position of the 16-team league.
MEANWHILE, IN JOHANNESBURG…
Finally, we move just south of the capital and down to Johannesburg for our next signing. Commonly referred to as Egoli (City of Gold) or Gangsters Paradise (depending on your views), Johannesburg undeniably rules the roost when it comes to South African football. In the 2014-15 season, the city was home to no fewer than four PSL clubs, although Moroka Swallows have since been relegated to the National First Division. The moneyed clubs Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates fame are the traditional heavyweights in the country and they will once again be fighting for domination.
Despite the Soweto-centric hold on power in Johannesburg, BidVest Wits (formerly Wits University), have also gone quietly about their business. Owned by the BidVest corporation and Rand billionaire, Brian Joffe, the club has invested heavily over the past two seasons in signing quality players to compete with the Soweto clubs and the moneyed Mamelodi Sundowns in Pretoria. One of those signings this off-season has been All Whites striker, Kris Bright.
Formerly a player in England, Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Hungary and Malta, to name just a few countries, Bright spent last season in slightly more exotic climes with Bharat FC of India. A return of 7 goals in 17 games in the I-League saw Bright travel to Johannesburg for a trial with Wits and this has ultimately been successful with the completion of a permanent deal for the club. The latest word from Wits is that Bright will, however, be doubtful for their competitive opener this coming weekend against Supersport United in the MTN8 Cup. A delay in the issuing of Bright’s work permit (which as anyone who has lived in South Africa will know, is an almost daily occurrence), means a reunion with messrs Brockie and Boxall may have to wait until Wednesday 23rd September, when the two sides meet in Johannesburg in the PSL.
THE FUTURE FOR KIWIS IN SOUTH AFRICA?
And so the future… Will more New Zealanders make their way to the sunny climes of South Africa to play their football? It’s definitely a possibility – word of mouth from those currently playing there and the increasingly global nature of our game dictate the chances are high. The climate is good, the infrastructure is superb and the money in the PSL is very competitive. The chance to play in world class stadiums such as Ellis Park, FNB Stadium, Cape Town Stadium or Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, for example will be a big draw. Also, despite the PSL suffering from relatively low crowds, the passion for the game in South Africa is great. Many say football in South Africa is a “black sport” but this is a grave misnomer. There is also a great passion for the game among the white, coloured and Indian communities too and their numbers are increasing in stadiums around the country. The standard of play in the league is technically very skilful and has attracted some big names in the past. It’s only a 14 hour or so flight from Sydney, meaning that it’s much closer for Kiwis (there are no direct flights between New Zealand and South Africa) than trying to land a contract in the UK or Europe. Don’t be surprised to see a few more Kiwis making their way across the southern Indian Ocean in the seasons to come.