Playing SAB league not a child’s play

Staff Writer, 30 April 2019

With the football season at grassroots level having just kicked off in and around Cape Town, it is the ambition of every footballer – be it a player, administrator or a coach – to play in the higher league, in this case in the SAB League.

But take it from Thulani Njili, chairman of the Khayelitsha-based Rebels FC, as much as it is emotionally fulfilling, participating in this fourth tier of football in South Africa is very tough, especial if you come from disadvantaged communities. “I think poverty in our communities lead to some of the players to lose discipline, focus and hunger to succeed as footballers,” he says. “Some players prefer to take part in informal matches (known as gambling games) where they have a chance to make quick bucks than playing in a structured league, as long as they have been promised something at the end of the day.”

This is despite the fact that SAB League is a breeding ground for the higher leagues where players can launch their careers. “I know of players who were playing in this league not too long ago but now are not just professionals but are key members at clubs in the Premier Soccer League. But such interesting stories are not motivation enough for some players.”

Njili, who hails from the Eastern Cape town of Cala, has been a member of Rebels since 1996, first as a player and went up the ranks as a junior coach and seniors mentor before taking over the club ownership when the previous chairman retired. After dominating the Lingelethu LFA Rebels earned promotion to SAB League in their fourth attempt some five years ago, and is the only club in Khayelitsha to participate in that level.

“Ta Thulz”, as Njili is affectionately known in football circles, recalls that it was a mission for the club to get into the SAB league. “Winning on the field of play was not that difficult but issues off the field were quite challenging. We had to go through five (disciplinary) cases for charges that knew nothing about. But in the end we were wiser and strong enough to compete and deal with such challenges successfully.”

In their second season, Rebels were contenders for the title until the last four games. Njili remembers: Before the Easter weekend we were on top of the log and played against Jomo Powers who were second. We beat them convincingly and opened a huge gap. Then someone took three of my key players to play for his team in an Easter Tournament in Upington and promised them money. One of them came back injured and others were not in the right frame to return to us. We drew all the remaining four games and surrendered the title.”

Njili said lack of resources are also a challenge to survive in the SAB league, and a minimum of R50 000 would be enough to make it big. “If I can have a minimum of R50 000 I can win this league. As long I can buy my players apparel, enough equipment for the team and maybe smaller things like pre-match meals so that there can be something attractive to them. Some players come to games hungry so those small things can make a huge difference because there is talent in our communities.”

Lying in the relegation zone with five games remaining in the 2018/2019 season, Rebels’ immediate focus is to avoid the chop and keep their status in the SAB league. But Njili has bigger dreams for the team and the football sector in Khayelitsha.