For years I have been going to the stadium and noticing how a certain type of player will always get booed,regardless if effectiveness
The target man upfront is the guy that most South African soccer fans (unlike the English) love to hate, and absolutely hate to love. Like rain in the summer, he is sometimes described as a necessary evil, at best.
Often providing an outlet upfront for long ball-playing defenders lacking in the confidence to provide incisive passes or deep runs into the pitch, or acting as the side-kick for the short, nippy little fella in a classic 4-4-2 - or modernized 4-4-1-1 - the target man is necessary to provide balance and ensure the system works efficiently but rarely offers an enjoyable experience for the South African viewer.
I happened to be at the Orlando Pirates versus Ajax Cape Town game at Orlando stadium on Tuesday night and calmly sat and observed many of the Pirates faithful booing and heckling the new Pirates signing, Takesure Chinyama, even before the Bucs substitute had managed to get a touch of the ball. All of this changed after Takesure - you’ve got to love that name - provided a great finish to a neatly worked goal. The “supporters” all left the stadium mimicking his winding up celebration. All seemed to have been forgotten.
Having also watched the recent Kaizer Chiefs games against Wits University and Premier Soccer League rookies Chippa United, I noticed how the crowd was getting on the back of Kingston Nkhatha, The Glamour Boys’off-season signing who plays up front as the sidekick in the ongoing Bernard Parker show.
Nkhatha enjoyed a relatively good start with two goals in his opening two league games. But, as is the rule for target men in the local game, as soon as the goals dry up, the fans put their hands up and the substitution sign can be seen all over the stands. Just ask big Philemon Masinga – boo-boys favourite and the man responsible for scoring that great World-Cup qualifying goal against Congo in 1997. Had Siphiwe Tshabala not scored THAT goal in the 2010 World Cup, we would still be forced to watch replays of that thunderous strike every time the national broadcaster plans to show a major soccer event.
It almost seems like the target man is seen as the antithesis of the flashy diski “style”. This is the guy that rarely, if ever, provides an exciting step-over, or a tsamaya that provides our friends at Supersport Football with thrilling highlights-reel material.
The local game is full of short, nippy players full of pace, skill and whole wardrobe full of tricks and flicks. As I saw in the Pirates game, your Oupa Manyisa’s and Tlou Segolela’s of this world tended to provide the trickery and, unfortunately, when the ball came to the target man, he was either too slow to get past the man or to latch on to a through ball. At other times he intentionally slowed the game down, holding up play and waiting for support (which is probably why the coach brought him on in the first place). This usually causes a lot of frustration for local fans.
Holding up play is not attractive – it doesn’t quite go along with images an average South African visualizes when thinking about diski. This usually leads to calls for the big guy upfront to be taken off for a more graceful player, regardless of the whether this replacement will be as effective.
This mindset has probably contributed in arguably the best target man in the League, Mame Niang, playing for PSL rookies, Pretoria University. Tuks, as the Pretoria-based team is commonly known, play beautiful football but Niang diligently provides a different route to goal and is unstoppable in the air – just ask the similarly tall, Mathew Booth.
Should the coach bows under the pressure and answer the fans’ prayers and decides to put in the flashy player and fails to achieve the most desirable result, fans then blame the coach for either (a) putting Mr Target Man in the starting line-up to begin with (b) having favourites, or (c) wasting “talent” on the bench (whatever that means). And as we all know, in the PSL, job security for a coach is all but a dream.
This is where coaching team with a very small, calmer fan base is to a team’s advantage in South Africa. Gavin Hunt, coach of the three-time PSL champions Supersport United, is never afraid to tinker with his line-up from tactical or disciplinary reasons and put in the likes of Glen Salmon or in the current setup, Nathan Paulse. This is because the small band of supporters is not as demanding and I should think it is a bit easier to resist pressure from 1,500 or so fans rather than 40,000.
But that’s South African soccer for you. Beautiful soccer is at times more important than winning soccer. For some time after he left Orlando Pirates, Kosta Papic was a firm fan-favourite in South Africa simply because of the how he managed to get the Pirates team of that period playing silky, speedy, and slick football unlike the more successful Gordon Igesund and Roy Barreto (both whom were let go by the club despite winning a league title).
As a consumer of the game, think to yourself: what’s more important to you, champagne football football or championship football?