Johannesburg - One of the best journalists this country has produced once told me that getting sports writers to avoid using clichés is one of the toughest things to do.
Since then I have observed, sometimes with glee, that sports writers and clichés are sometimes as inseparable as Siamese twins.
But, with respect to this veteran, I forgave my fellow reporters this week as even I could not come up with a better expression than “a baptism of fire” in reference to Stuart Baxter’s match against Nigeria on Saturday.
So, with apologies to this warhorse, I get onto the cliché bandwagon.
Football rivalries all across the world are well documented.
Among the fiercest is the El Clasico – Real Madrid vs Barcelona in Spain, Manchester United vs Arsenal or Liverpool in England, Boca Juniors vs River Plate in Argentina, Juventus vs either AC or Inter Milan in Italy and Al Ahly vs Zamalek in Egypt.
We also have our own Soweto Derby, which pits former archenemies Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs against each other.
At international level, they don’t get any more bitter than Brazil vs Argentina in South America and Germany vs Netherlands in Europe.
There have even been spitting incidents on the field in those rivalries, and people have actually died over them.
In Africa, I don’t think football rivalries get any hotter than South Africa vs Nigeria.
The two countries are sworn enemies in many aspects in their quest to be regarded as the best nation on this continent.
In the 1990s, Nigeria even passed on the opportunity to come to South Africa to defend the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) trophy they had lifted two years earlier in Tunisia.
The decision was a result of a spat between former president Nelson Mandela and Sani Abacha, the dictator then running the west African country.
British journalist Simon Kuper, who travelled across the globe recording how important football was to different nations’ psyches, made some serious and interesting observations.
Among them was how politicians used football to climb to the helm of their country’s governments and sometimes to stay there.
Abacha had gone ahead and ordered the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was fighting for the rights of the people living in the oil-rich Ogoni region.
Abacha defied Madiba and spat in the whole world’s face by carrying out the execution.
He then made a unilateral decision to ban the Nigerian national team from participating in the 1996 Afcon.
To date, Nigerians are wont to boast to any South African that we won that match only because they were not around.
To add insult to injury, the results of the games between the two nations support that statement.
So far, the two teams have had 12 meetings, with Nigeria coming out tops on seven occasions, four ending in draws and only one victory for Bafana.
Nigeria have pumped in 22 goals to our boys’ meagre six. Quite a lopsided set of results by any standards.
The taunting that goes on in football has risen to such a level that many Nigerians will tell anyone who listens that Bafana Bafana have become like their wives. Quite a hurtful and bitter taunt!
It is with this background that I agree with the view that Baxter’s first match on his second coming is indeed a baptism of fire.
Mr Stuart William Baxter, sir, our fate is in your hands. Need we remind you of what that great Scotsman who took Liverpool to dizzy heights, your namesake Bill Shankly, said?
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”
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