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‘Stop nonsense’ Schloss honoured for Wits football club

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Professor Ronnie Schloss once had to run around the canteen at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) to find players for its senior team in the 1960s. The Wits soccer team’s fortunes changed after he got involved with its administration, and his contribution was recognised when the grandstand of Wits’ football stadium was renamed in his honour at a ceremony on 7 November.

Schloss, chief operations officer of the Premier Soccer League (PSL), has dedicated more than 60 years of his life to Wits and football in South Africa. He has been a student, soccer player, student representative council member, lecturer, and chairperson of the football club at Wits.

“To my university, my alma mater, all I can say is thank you for recognising me. I thoroughly enjoyed my life here,” Schloss said of the grandstand being renamed in his honour.

After half of Wits’ senior team pulled out of a match in the 1960s due to exams, Schloss somehow assembled a team of 14 players to get on the train for the game in Bloemfontein. “We were very successful. We lost 15-nil,” he said to laughter. “As a result of that, I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something better’ and I got involved in the administration. Within a year or two, I became the chairman.”

Schloss, who grew up in Hillbrow and went to Highlands North Boys High School, said there was chaos when Wits played Rangers, the top team in the old white National Football League, in a cup competition around 1976. “There was no grandstand here, there were no fences around the field, and people came from all over. We had about five or six thousand people here.”

Afterwards, Wits vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Guerino Bozzoli, told Schloss they must do something to address this. “That’s how the grandstand came about. The rugby stand and the soccer stand were built at the same time,” Schloss recalled.

Irvin Khoza, the chairperson of the PSL and Orlando Pirates, described Schloss as “an activist and evangelist for the sport” when different race groups played in separate leagues. “Long before the historic Codesa [Convention for a Democratic South Africa], he advocated, promoted, and practised non-racial sport in defiance of the Group Areas Act and the many laws that sought to keep South Africans apart based on race,” Khoza said.

“The arrests he and his comrades, Raymond Hack, Derek Blanckensee, and the young Jonathan Schloss, who at that time was about 11 years old, suffered on their way into and out of Soweto didn’t deter him. After a night at Langlaagte Police Station that weekend, they would be back in Soweto the following weekend.”

Kaizer Chiefs Chairperson Kaizer Motaung dubbed Schloss the “encyclopaedia of football” in South Africa. “The PSL is benefiting immensely from your impeccable knowledge of football. I’ve benefited from the many years of collaboration with you in various aspects of the game,” he said.

Former Wits FC Chairperson Raymond Hack, who has known Schloss for 55 years, said, “There’s no-one in this country who can equal the belief that Professor Schloss had for this club, Wits University. He lived, he slept, he ate for Wits University. Let’s put it this way, our children’s educational bursaries didn’t go towards education. They went towards Wits University Football Club.”

Today, Wits has hundreds of soccer players from junior to senior level and competes in the GP ABC Motsepe League, the third division in South Africa.

The first major soccer cup Wits won was the Mainstay Cup in 1978. “The chancellor at that stage was a Professor du Plessis,” Hack recalled. “Ronnie and I had the distinction of being kicked out of his office. The reason was because [at a time] when Wits was focused on rugby and cricket, we had the vision of professional football. We went to him to ask, ‘Can we play professional football?’”

“The university is a place of learning, not a place of sport. Therefore, you cannot do it,” Du Plessis responded before turning to Schloss and saying, “We never played football at Cambridge University.”

Hack believes this “drove Ronnie to ensure that Wits was the success that it was and, I believe, the success that it will be in the future”.

Schloss and Hack fondly remember some of the players Wits produced such as goalkeeper Gary Bailey, the top engineering student, who went on to play for Manchester United and England, and Eric Tinkler, who went on to play in the English Premier League and for Bafana Bafana.

“We produced many great players coming through the junior ranks,” Schloss said. “By starting the junior section, we achieved something that nobody believed would have been possible. First of all, we got kids [for example, in shacks in Soweto and kids in houses in Houghton] to mix. We developed from under-six to under 19.”

Schloss continues to put in as much as he can for the university. “I want us to have another team in the PSL,” he said in light of Wits selling its professional top division status in 2020, only three years after winning the league. “The team we had was one of the most popular teams in the country.”

Wits Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi said Schloss was a “living legend” whose story was intertwined with the fabric of the university. “You weren’t just a student who passed these halls, you’re a leader and a driving force behind the success of our football club. In you, we see the strength of what the next generation can carry,” he said.

Khoza said people with Schloss’s level of diligence were called “stop nonsense”. “This founder member of the PSL, highly educated, brought stature and credibility to the league that would grow with his active involvement into one of the best in the world,” Khoza said. “He traversed the length and breadth of our country, ensuring our fields of play met the standard of our compliance manual. No place was far for him, no place was unsafe for him. You can achieve this only if you have love, passion, and a calling. Your contribution to football is a heritage South Africa should and will cherish.”

In addition to his contribution to Wits and the PSL, Schloss was an integral part of South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup bid team, and served as manager of South Africa’s soccer team at three Maccabi Games.

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