Stellenbosch Football Club: At the top of their game

If you were anywhere near Stellenbosch on 5 May last year, chances are you would have heard the roar of the crowd cheering for Stellenbosch Football Club that filled the stands at Idas Valley Stadium.

Lelethu Skelem evades a committed tackle in a match against Wits.

While the passionate home supporters screamed their encouragement, out on the pitch Stellenbosch Football Club held Maccabi FC to a goalless finish. But it wasn’t the score that had the crowd going wild and the players celebrating. The draw at the final whistle cemented the Stellenbosch team at the top of the National First Division (NFD), granting it automatic promotion into the Premier Soccer League (PSL). Stellenbosch soccer had finally made it into the big time.

Stellenbosch Football Club is a relatively new name on South Africa’s football landscape, but it’s one with a rich history. It began life as Vasco da Gama Football Club, founded in the Cape Town suburb of Parow in 1980. After playing in both the PSL and NFD, in 2016, Vasco da Gama FC relocated to Stellenbosch, rebranding as Stellenbosch Football Club and setting up a base at the respected Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in Krige Street. 

The fortunes of the team waxed and waned as it toiled in the National First Division, until June 2018, when the Pretoria-based owner made a move to sell it and relocate the club upcountry. It was then that the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport stepped in – with the backing of sole shareholder Remgro – to purchase Stellenbosch Football Club, keeping the team firmly rooted in the Eikestad. 

“Even though we have always been better known for rugby, I’ve always believed the Winelands deserves a professional football team, and we really wanted a club here for the long term,” explains Rob Benadie, CEO of the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport. 

Since opening in 2012, the academy has established itself as a sports training facility of international standards. Aside from attracting elite athletes and international teams from across the globe, it is also the permanent base for the hugely successful Springbok Sevens squad – and now a proudly Stellenbosch football team showing enormous promise. 

“When we bought the Stellenbosch Football Club in 2018, we had a five-year plan to win the National First Division and play in the PSL. That was achieved in one year!” laughs Rob.

With the promotion to the PSL, almost overnight the team found itself catapulted into the bright lights of the premiership. The staff complement tripled, an under-21 team was added to compete in the Multichoice Diski Challenge, and the squad was tweaked to step up to the rigorous demands of premier league football.

“We had to look to improve the quality of the squad, to bring in players with more experience to add to the talented young squad that we had,” explains Steve Barker, the head coach at Stellenbosch Football Club.

While new players brought depth and maturity to the squad, one of the goals of the club has always been to ensure the team is filled with local talent. 

Head coach Steve Barker, who led the team to Premier League promotion in 2019.

“We want to be successful at the highest level, but as far as possible we also want to have a home-grown team,” says Rob. “We want to tap into talent in the Winelands community and give those boys an opportunity they’ve never had before.”

Stellenbosch Football Club has already made enormous progress on that front. Last year, a quarter of its squad – Lee Langeveldt, Ashley du Preez, Keegan Pool, Deano van Rooyen, Lelethu Skelem and Angelo Kerspuy – were born and bred in Stellenbosch.

Tapping into talent at the Winelands’ many amateur football clubs is an immediate route to seeing local names out on the pitch but with long-term sustainability in mind, January 2019 saw the launch of the Stellenbosch Football Club High Performance Academy. 

Focusing on the development rather than the acquisition of talent, the academy works with both schools and amateur clubs to identify and nurture young talent, with trials and training aimed at grooming the next generation of South African football stars. 

“The academy really increases the possi­bility of producing talented local players who can perform at the very top end of the game,” says Steve, who also led the University of Pretoria Football Club to PSL promotion in 2012. “We hope that with the right structures in place we’re going to discover and develop more talent going forward.”

“The next step is to develop our first Bafana Bafana player!” adds Rob with a smile. 

It’s a worthy ambition because perhaps more important than simply providing a future pool of players for the club, the establishment of the academy – and the ongoing success of Stellenbosch Football Club – has shone a light on a new opportunity for Winelands youth.

“If you’re a keen young rugby player in the Winelands, there’s a clear pathway for you: from school to provincial to national level with the Springboks. But as a football player, there’s no obvious pathway,” explains Rob. “There are hundreds of young football players here in the Winelands playing for amateur clubs that have been around for years, but they’ve never had a professional team on their doorstep. These kids all grow up dreaming of playing for Ajax Cape Town, or perhaps Chiefs or Pirates in Gauteng, but now they see a pathway to playing for their own home team. That’s an incredible opportunity that’s been created by Stellenbosch Football Club.”

That dedication to nurturing Stellenbosch talent has also created role models for local youngsters. “Just look at Lelethu Skelem,” says Rob. “He comes from Kayamandi and two years ago he was playing for a local team. Today he’s a professional footballer playing in the PSL!”

While these local heroes battle it out on the field, Steve Barker and his players are hoping that the whole of Stellenbosch will get behind the team for its first home game in the PSL this April. 

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde, Stellenbosch Wine Routes chairman Mike Ratcliffe and Mayor Gesie van Deventer get behind the team in their own football shirts.

Aside from the home ground advantage of simply being familiar with the pitch, in the world of football, players refer to home-ground support as the ‘12th man on the pitch’, an advantage that can make the difference between victory and defeat. 

“When the home crowd gets behind a player, it can really change the match,” says Steve. “They push you onwards when you’re doing well, and when you’re not putting in 100% effort they encourage you to step up. It really motivates you.”

And aside from winning honours on the field, the success of the club – and the long-awaited arrival of home fixtures – is a boon for the entire town, adds Mike Ratcliffe, co-chairman of Visit Stellenbosch. “Stellenbosch has a very proud sporting tradition but we have always contributed to other franchises, there hasn’t been a major sports franchise based in Stellenbosch,” he says. “I believe Stellenbosch Football Club has dramatic potential to be a unifying element for the entire town.” 

As the club’s players fight to improve their position in the league table, the coaches and squad are keeping one eye on the future. 

“It’s a tough league but in our hearts we want to be challenging at the top end of the table,” says Steve. “We’re not only here to survive, we believe that what we have around us is enough to see us challenging at the top of the PSL table.” 

Come out and support!

Stellenbosch Football Club is warming up for its first home game on 4 April 2020, when the team takes on Cape Town City in a derby at the Danie Craven Stadium. It’ll mark the first time the club has played a PSL match with home-ground advantage, after the upgrading of the Danie Craven facility allowed for the hosting of official PSL games. 

For details and ticketing, visit www.stellenboschfc.co