A fitting farewell to Orlando Stadium

How appropriate. Moroka Swallows and Orlando Pirates will perform the last rites over one of the first temples of local football, Orlando Stadium, on Sunday.

After this match, the stadium will be reduced to rubble in preparation for the building of a modern facility.

Orlando Stadium is no ordinary ground, which is why the Swallows-Pirates match is the perfect choice, because this is no ordinary fixture.

It is the longest continuously played professional fixture in the local game, with the teams having first locked horns in the late 1940s.

It is a rivalry of significance, to which some football historians attribute Swallows ending Pirates’ domination of the then Transvaal in the early 1950s.

In his book Laduma: Soccer, Politics and Society in South Africa, Peter Alegi writes that ”playing as Corrugated Rovers, an apt name for a team based in a shantytown, Swallows defeated Pirates in the 1953 Transvaal Challenge Cup final. The Birds replaced the Buccaneers as the Transvaal’s dominant team and opened a new chapter in the history of South African football, while the ageing warriors of Orlando faded away after nearly 20 years of superb competition.”

Some of their fiercest contests later took place at the Orlando Stadium, work on which started in 1958 – a decade after the founding of Sunday’s host, Swallows, and almost 20 years after Pirates’ birth.

The stadium was an expression of a desire by the black football bigwigs to have a home of their own.

The black football fraternity had grown tired of being given the run around by the white-run Johannesburg municipality and the white Football Association of South Africa (Fasa).

And so on May 2 1959, the stadium that was to be to the local game what the Maracana is to Brazil and the Nou Camp to Catalunya was officially opened. Laduma records that it cost £36 000, with the council providing £15 000 and private companies the rest.

The ground was allocated to the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association in return for the association accepting subordinate membership to Fasa.

Until the availability of Ellis Park and later the FNB Stadium, Orlando was the venue for all important football events. Pirates, by virtue of geography and prestige, ”owned” the stadium and the ground at which the club’s glory years were recorded.

It was there – and at Swallows’ home ground Jabavu Stadium – that the likes of Differ ”City Council” Mbanya and, much later, Joel ”Ace” Mnini, achieved iconic status.

The last time the two sides met in a final was in the 1980 Mainstay Cup, which Pirates won 3-2. On that November afternoon, the capacity crowd at the Orlando ground saw one Irvin Khoza sitting on the Pirates bench as team manager.

Two players – both born and raised less than a kilometre from the stadium – Jomo Sono and Ephraim ”Shakes” Mashaba, were on opposite sides. Both went on to become Bafana Bafana coaches.

One of the things to bemoan about South African football is indifference to tradition. That is why some fans cannot understand why Swallows fans remain cold towards a ”successful” coach like Gavin Hunt.

Those fans cannot similarly fathom why Pirates would chase away two coaches immediately after they had won the championship.

For those fans, the simple answer is history. Football was a form of worship, not some perfunctory chore.

Sunday at Orlando Stadium is thus the perfect time and place to remind those fixated with the contemporary, why, until the emergence of Kaizer Chiefs in 1970, Moroka Swallows vs Orlando Pirates was the most anticipated fixture in the land.

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