AmaZulu return to PSL leaves bitter taste

Mabhuti Khenyeza of AmaZulu celebrates a goal with Siyabonga Nomvethe Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

The decision of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) to allow second-tier AmaZulu to acquire the top-flight status of newly-promoted Thanda Royal Zulu merely confirms that football in South Africa is business and, it could be argued, lacks sporting integrity.

On the face of it, you might wonder what all the fuss is about? It was a willing buyer, willing seller arrangement that leaves the owners of both clubs happy with the decision.

But what about players, the fans and the local Umhlathuze municipality, that had pumped in millions to improve facilities at Thanda's Umhlathuze Sports Complex with the promise of top-flight football to come? 

It also goes against FIFA's sporting integrity aims around promotion and relegation, though the sport's governing body offers guidelines on this rather than hard and fast rules.

AmaZulu were relegated from the PSL at the end of the 2014-15 season and spent the past two seasons in the National First Division (NFD) -- a rough and tumble league that is high on hustle and bustle, but low on quality.

Thanda have faced relegation from the second tier in recent seasons and have wracked up debts in their club operations, but surprisingly stormed to promotion this year under coach Roger Sikhakhane.

As soon as they achieved promotion, the owners let it be known they were inviting offers and AmaZulu, who have been unable to achieve promotion on the pitch in the last two seasons, have now bought their way back into the big-time.

It makes a mockery of the South African domestic competition, and lowers the gravitas of the game. 
Would a second division team in England, Italy, Spain, Germany or France be simply allowed to buy the top-flight status of another club and move their way up a division? Of course not! It would be unthinkable. 

But in South Africa, where the clubs essentially run the system, it is allowed, because they all know that one day they may need to lean on the provision to get themselves out of a sticky mess, as AmaZulu have done.

The monthly grant from the league to NFD teams is R500,000 -- with PSL teams receiving R1 million more than that -- as well as the opportunity to enter the lucrative MTN8 (if they qualify) and Telkom Knockout competitions. So there is an attraction to having a top-flight team if it is well-managed and competitive. 

But what of the Thanda players that have toiled all season to win promotion? Some will play in the PSL next season, but the majority won't. They have been robbed of their hard-earned sporting achievement. 

And the fans, who paid money to watch the team through the season, buying merchandise and investing emotionally in the club too. Gone up in smoke. They have been betrayed. 

The Umhlathuze municipality has suggested they may take the owners of Thanda to court after they agreed a three-year sponsorship of the team in April worth in total R15 million, though no money has yet changed hands. 

Reports suggest they have also invested R14 million in the lighting at the club's stadium to prepare it for televised matches in the PSL next season. No point now. 

The movement of 'franchises' is nothing new in sport, just last year the San Diego Chargers NFL team became the Los Angeles Chargers. But in sport in the USA, there is no promotion or relegation, so it is not as though the team gained a sporting advantage from doing so. 

FIFA have tried to combat teams buying their way to promotion, but only prohibit the sale of a club's status when it results in them swapping a division.

So for example, Thanda will not be staying in the NFD this season, the club is officially dead. Instead a team by the name of Richard's Bay FC will compete, with a new shareholding.

The teams involved have done nothing illegal in terms of the rules of the PSL or FIFA, but they have rather just circumvented them with smoke and mirrors.

Certainly there will be many around the country eager to see AmaZulu go straight back to the NFD this season, with the reported R50 million paid for the status of Thanda lost along with, perhaps, their moral compass.