In case you were not aware of it, reasons to feel glum about the state of affairs in South Africa, or the world for that matter, are plentiful.
Ours is a society grappling with real challenges in the form of load-shedding, an economy that is not showing any growth, high levels of unemployment especially among the youth, the scourge of gender-based violence, long-standing racial tensions, streets awash with criminal behaviour, and much more. It’s enough to make a grown man cry out loud. Football lovers among those afflicted by these ills number in the thousands. So it is only understandable that the poor, exasperated citizens of this land welcome a pick-me-up whenever it appears on the horizon. A reprieve, no matter how brief, from the harsh realities of life, at a time of a freedom that was never free. Hence it is my considered view that the Soweto Derby, taking place this coming Saturday at FNB Stadium, comes at just the right time.
Despite our dark past, it is an undeniable fact that we, Mzansi folk, are an optimistic lot, always longing for a better tomorrow and hungering for a beautiful story, and I tell ya they don’t come more beautiful, awe-inspiring and gripping than a game between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, on any given day. Officially seeing the light of day for the first time back in 1970, this rivalry has for many years come to divide families, split friendships in the middle and have the whole country at a standstill, at least for those 90 minutes. I have yet to confirm it, but they say even the crime rate plummets when this game is on. Those who seem to be more knowledgeable than the rest of us also often inform us that brothels are not the hive of activity they usually are when iBhakajuju and iKhosi do battle. Make of that what you will!
I can only assure you, dear reader, that the only thing I know is that 29 February 2020 is not going to be a deviation from the usual script, especially if the manner and pace with which the fans went out to get their tickets for the game, after they went on sale, is anything to go by. It’s a sold-out affair! Such was the scramble, that you would swear it was, at the time, billed to be a top-of-the-table clash, but nay, the points difference between the two giants on the Absa Premiership table was as big as whatever is holding up contract negotiations between Mamelodi Sundowns and Pitso Mosimane. Pirates have since narrowed the gap to just six points, albeit having played one more game than their rivals. Downs are smelling blood. Suddenly this game has an interesting twist to it.
Wondering why it was a sold-out shindig weeks before a ball was kicked in anger? Well, it is because the supporters know that Soweto Derby day experienced on the side-lines of proceedings on the pitch is, without any sense of exaggeration, an experience of a lifetime. The editor of this newspaper, Vuyani Joni, a Paterson (Eastern Cape) native yet a Joburger at heart, in casual conversation with yours truly about the derby before, stood in awe of the attendant atmosphere at FNB Stadium on derby day - before, during and after the match. “Yho, LA, you should see people mingling outside the stadium, enjoying their drinks, car boots open and music blaring, just an hour or so before the game. You wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he rightfully boasted. And I could only let my imagination run wild at the mere thought of the revelry. He also says this leads to people approaching the turnstiles only minutes before kick-off, which often leads to the venue getting full only minutes after the game has started and, at times near stampedes, a culture you’ll agree we need to nip in the bud to avoid tragic consequences.
Yet, believe me, football lovers who descend in their numbers from all corners of Mzansi for this game every time it comes around, do not do so because they have nothing better to do. They go there hoping to be enthralled with a good, uniquely South African brand of football, with a sprinkling of goals to make the trip back home a worthwhile one. Because to them, these are the two top teams in the country, who have to provide the benchmark on how football should be played on the southernmost tip of Mother Africa. Bragging rights are also always at stake... what’s a Soweto Derby without these? In the not-too-distant past, though, fans were made to watch snore-fest versions of this tie - dololo goals, dololo shukela - that the trip back home turned to a torturous exercise. Imagine traveling all the way from Cape Town to watch this fixture, spending money on petrol, food and accommodation, only for it to end 0-0, with no talking points in terms of the display on the field - it must feel rather like inviting that lady you meet every morning at the bus stop on a date, only for her to rock up with her boyfriend in tow. Disappointing.
In all honesty, coaches (some foreign, some local) simply forgot what this game was all about and became fixated with the end result, and this modus operandi trickled through to the players, from both camps, to such an extent that the most imaginative among them suddenly became a shadow of themselves. It was as if the one team expected the other to get the show going until the final whistle blew.
That is why I would like to appeal to the respective coaches of both camps, Josef Zinnbauer and Ernst Middendorp, to please not put us through that torture. We all know that, at this stage of the season, pressure is sky-high, but please release your charges of any inhibitions. Let them be. Give us a Soweto Derby for the ages. Do not indulge in anti-football. In the words of ex-Pirates coach Viktor Bondarenko: “Attack, attack, attack.” Sitting back, absorbing pressure, catching them on the counter... all that modern football gobbledygook has no place in the El Kasico. That said, I must say it has been pleasing to note the enthusiasm expressed by JZ for this game in the past week or two, judging by his comments, and one hopes this zest, this energy to have a full go at it, in front of 90 000 fans, rubs off on “Mazinyo”, a man of many Soweto derbies. Gentlemen, it’s about more than just the three points on offer. This is the pick-me-up we, as long-suffering South Africans, have been waiting for since the year started. Before the lights go out again.
Catch y’all on the rebound,