Absa Premiership

Soweto derby sums up South Africa's soul

2016-10-27 12:25
FNB Stadium (Gallo Images)

Soweto - The sprawling township of Soweto is famous as the crucible of the often violent struggle against apartheid - and also home to a fierce footballing rivalry.

Matches between neighbouring Soweto clubs the Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs ignite fierce passions across South Africa, a country with a notorious reputation for violence and crime.

But any overseas visitor attending Saturday's derby will likely witness a fun, family-friendly carnival at which rival fans mix freely and the biggest competition sometimes appears to be over who wears the craziest fancy dress.

The two teams will meet, for the first time this season, at the elegant FNB Stadium built in Soweto for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The 94 000-seater venue is set to be sold out and the deafening vuvuzela horns that blew their way to worldwide notoriety in 2010 will provide the unmistakable monotone soundtrack to every minute of action.

Veteran football journalist and analyst Thomas Kwenaite describes the derby as "the life and blood of South African football".

"Both teams can't afford to lose to each other because there are bragging rights and a lot of pride at stake," he told AFP.

"This is what drives both teams whenever they come against each other."

The derby - like South Africa itself - has survived a turbulent modern history.

As recently as 2001 tragedy struck when a stampede killed 43 people outside the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg as fans jostled to get into the already full ground.

Another stampede killed 42 people at a pre-season friendly at a small provincial stadium in 1991.

Today, the matches - which move around the country - are well-organised and policed by hundreds of stewards to ensure safe crowd control.

"In the past, Pirates had their own section in the stadium and Kaizer Chiefs had their own section," said Kwenaite, pointing out that segregation is no longer compulsory.

"I know Pirates supporters who wouldn't take defeat well and would sometimes resort to violence, but it is no longer like that."

The Chiefs have recorded more wins than the Pirates since the first game in 1970, though there is no clear favourite ahead of Saturday's clash, which will the 160th derby.

In the stands, a sea of Chiefs supporters in black and gold and Pirate fans in black and white will try to outshine each other with the most outlandish spectator attire.

From mock clergy robes, academic gowns and pirates costumes to full body paint, loyalists do anything to show their support.

In a nod to more violent days, plastic helmets are still part of the unofficial fan gear, nowadays adapted by being cut apart and turned into intricate designs in club colours.

The camaraderie among opposing fans may come as a surprise to outsiders, but the on-field rivalry is real.

Both teams are fighting for South Africa's Premier Soccer League title, which has eluded them in recent years - and a derby victory that counts above all others.

"Derbies don't start with the players on the field, they don't start in the grandstands, they start with the family," retired Pirates striker Jerry "Legs of Thunder" Sikhosana told AFP.

Sikhosana knows the pain of split loyalties - he grew up as a proud supporter of Kaizer Chiefs.

"It becomes personal," he said. "Before the derby, the training gets different. The players make an extra effort to be included in the starting line-up."

The 47-year-old holds a special place in derby records - in 1996 he became the first and only player to have ever scored a hat-trick.

In Soweto, the sense of cross-town competition is heightened by the clubs' intertwined history.

Chiefs founder and owner Kaizer Motaung once played for Pirates before forming his team.

Today the Pirates, nicknamed "The Buccaneers" because of their skull and bones emblem, pride themselves on their street-tough reputation.

In contrast the Chiefs, often referred to by their Zulu name "Amakhosi", revel in their image as the flashy "glamour boys" of the game.

Soweto, once home to Nelson Mandela and archbishop Desmond Tutu, was built for black miners living under the racial segregation of apartheid.

Even today, its streets show the grim legacy of white-minority rule - poverty, high unemployment, poor education and housing, and patchy supplies of power and water.

But on Saturday it will also be a place of pride, passion, joy and a deep love of football.

Kick-off is at 15:30.

Read more on:    kaizer chiefs  |  orlando pirates  |  psl  |  soweto  |  soccer

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