It’s the week of South Africa’s showpiece derby. The week where a line is drawn through the sand of Soweto and you choose which side to step on. Hell, who are we kidding! The line may as well be drawn right across the country when you consider that no matter where you live in South Africa, there are fanatical Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates fans.
For one weekend, our football looks like any other of the top leagues in the world, where passionate supporters buy tickets well ahead of time, where a stadium will be packed to the rafters. Come Sunday, news channels from around the world will air football highlights clips from the week and Itu, Yeye, Mbesuma and Jali will appear on the same newsreel as Ronaldo and Rooney from the Real Madrid v Man United game. The global audience will go, “Wow, football is obviously quite big in South Africa.”
How wrong they would be though. Let’s be honest, the derby sells itself. All the passion, all the history, everything that this game represents means that you don’t need an events company to hype it up. The packed stadium has nothing to do with innovative marketing strategies, or genius ways to generate excitement. This game could take place in a parking lot in Soweto and you would get 90 000 to come watch.
This game exists and thrives because of the story it tells. It captures the imagination of a nation and one becomes seduced by its allure, even if you’re not a big footy fan. For many, this will be the only fixture they make a point of watching this season. And that is the problem with South African soccer. We continue to rely on the history of our clubs, continue to brag about, ‘When our clubs were great!’ rather than finding ways to make our current clubs great. My fear is that even our biggest clubs are living on borrowed time.
A Kaizer Chiefs fan we spoke to about the current problem of Chiefs players being booed hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that the club shouldn’t be worried about booing. They have bigger problems. They should be more concerned about why only
4 000 people are in the stadium for most games. And the guy is spot on. In a country where we have in the region of 12 million local soccer fans, how is it that PSL stadiums around the country on match day are averaging around 6 000 fans per game?
Take Chiefs, Pirates and Sundowns fans out of that equation and the average drops even further. Yes, Man United or Liverpool may not get 90 000 plus to a derby game, but the average in the EPL for crowd attendance is around the 40 000 mark. In La Liga it hovers around 30 000 and in Germany, where clearly the real football love is, where clubs make sure supporters feel special, the average attendance is 45 000 plus.
Now how do we call ourselves a soccer crazy nation when our professional teams are playing in front of a handful of supporters for the most part? Where is it going wrong? There are lots of theories. Look at the state of our soccer pitches around the country. Some of them are an absolute embarrassment. Some of our clubs draw comparisons between themselves and the Manchester Uniteds and Barcelonas of world football, but I guarantee that Manchester United and Barcelona don’t allow music concerts to happen in their stadiums during the season. And if there is an event, it is with the proviso the turf is maintained in its hallowed state so as not to affect the performance of the players or ruin the spectacle for their supporters.
Some will say the standard of football has dropped. That it isn’t good enough to bring people to the stadiums anymore. That’s debatable, but I would argue we have better conditioned athletes, better coaches and better youth development programmes, graduating better young talent than we had in the past. Maybe to a certain extent our natural entertainers aren’t getting as much game time as in the past, but that is a whole new column. Some will complain that our soccer stadiums are rundown. We hosted a World Cup and complied with Fifa standards! Some will argue that TV is killing South African soccer stadium attendance, another good argument considering the extensive soccer offering of SuperSport on DStv, but I argue that if your club makes you care enough, makes you feel special enough, you go to home games no matter what.
So while the PSL, and South African soccer glows in the international media spotlight that will be thrown on the Soweto derby this week, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that it’s not what people in other countries think that really matters. Especially when those thoughts or perceptions are based on the euphoria surrounding the Soweto derby. What’s important is what we here in South Africa think about our football. It’s what we fans experience on a weekly basis that counts.
The Soweto derby has become the plaster stuck across the gaping wound that exists when it comes to crowd attendance in South African football. Isn’t it time we ripped that plaster off and started to address this problem before our game bleeds out?