A derby of mediocrity

Conventional wisdom has it that this weekend’s Soweto Derby will be the worst since the PSL was founded.

For the first time in years both Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates are having their worst seasons simultaneously.

Chiefs are ninth on the log, two places higher than their rivals from across the Orlando railway line.

In football terms the two clubs have nothing to play for. Finishing in the top eight no longer carries the incentive it once did. The competition for clubs to finish on the top half of the log, which used to open the season, has been phased out.

It would be wrong to reduce the derby to a mere football encounter. Stripped of its pretensions we can now see it for what it is — a return to the basic human instinct to fight others because they are not ”one of us”.

It is the football equivalent of a gangster turf war or the feudalistic tit-for-tat we often see re-enacted in rural communities such as Msinga in KwaZulu-Natal or the Sicilian hinterland.

Football, like many team sports, often betrays the primal instinct of ”them against us”. Like politics, it is war by another means and it is arguable whether these means are more peaceful than conventional wars.

The thousands of fans who are expected in Mafikeng will attend not only because they love those tribes that have evolved into football clubs since the urban age, but because they have grown to hate the opposition — easily identifiable by the colours they wear and the false gods they worship. The chance of seeing their foes more miserable than themselves also brings its own joy.

But if the derby continues on its current course, it might lose its status as one of Africa’s top sporting events.

Once upon a time the Soweto derby was a clash between Moroka Swallows and Pirates.

Happily, Pirates and Chiefs operate in an age when things are not simply governed by group instincts. Both clubs are led by successful business people who understand the value of planning and providing the input necessary to produce desired outcomes.

What they should remember is that tribes evolve and, in time, their members can be absorbed into newer, more successful teams.

It didn’t have to come to this. The tribes’ elders have let their people down.

Chiefs can, to a certain extent, blame their turbulent season on the lack of a home ground. The FNB stadium is being reconstructed in preparation for the 2010 World Cup.

This excuse has limits, however, because this is a club that prides itself on being so popular across the region that it never feels as if it is playing an away game.

Meanwhile, coaches of teams such as Santos aren’t supposed to complain about earning an away draw against Chiefs, but this is exactly what team coach David Bright did a few weeks ago.

Chiefs coach Muhsin Ertugral has been tearing out what is left of his hair — the club’s strikers have missed more chances than the law of averages allows.

And Pirates fans should hold the team’s management responsible for their miserable time. An indication of how little attention management has been paying is evident in the fact that the club celebrated its 75th birthday in its 76th year, ostensibly because club chairperson Irvin Khoza was too busy preparing for 2010 and negotiating sponsorship deals with banks and television stations.

The club has more players than it can fit on its website page, but coach Owen da Gama didn’t have a say in picking any of them, including those who arrived after he had been appointed

This Soweto Derby, however, might not send the message that fans have seen through the charade. Thanks to Chiefs nomadic status, the derby will be played within walking distance of the Botswana border. It might just be a stroke of genius, because there is no guarantee that gatvol (fed up) Johannesburg fans will trouble themselves to buy a ticket.

Who can blame them?

For the past few years, the two clubs have got away with mediocrity.

Those players who would not have been allowed on the field as ball boys in previous years now don the famous colours and get paid for it. It is scandalous — and more and more supporters are wising up to the fact.

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