/ 3 November 2009

Football rivalry, South African style

Ten years ago I was a sports reporter for the Daily Express. Every Saturday I would cover a football match at the likes of Birmingham City, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Norwich City, Peterborough United, Port Vale, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton, Swindon Town, Watford, Walsall or Yeovil Town. The stadiums were often the best part of a hundred years old and found in a working-class area of town.

I thought back to those days last Saturday as I drove to a match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates in Soweto, Johannesburg. It was a journey past squat but proud redbrick houses, spaza shops with Coca-Cola sponsored signs for Pete’s Cafe or Sally’s Fish and Chips, and rubbish skips spilling their contents into wastelands where men evidently thought nothing of taking a leak.

Men and women in smart suits and dresses queued patiently outside a white marquee for food after attending a funeral. A little girl performed a handstand in the street. An elderly man waited to cross the road, while an elderly woman looked out from her driveway, each with long histories etched on their faces. A comedian on the back of a pick-up truck shouted to passing women: “Hey look at me. I think you’re beautiful. I miss you!”

Match day is match day, wherever you are in the world. I was forced to slow down as the traffic snarled up towards the ground. Many of the vehicles bore flags or pennants: yellow and black for Chiefs, a white skull and crossbones on black for Pirates. There was the same sense of communal pilgrimage, as ritualised as church, and of shared faith that what we’re about to watch truly matters.

Outside the Orlando Stadium there were market stalls selling hats, shirts, banners, compilation CDs of fans’ songs and local food specialties including vleis, pap and mopani worms. Supporters wore colourful facepaint, wigs, giant goofy glasses and costumes including traditional Zulu robes.

The most popular headgear was the makarapa, a variation on the miner’s helmet topped by elaborate decorations.

A man grinned at me and crossed his wrists as if showing me handcuffs. Then I realised he was merely imitating the Pirates’ skull and crossbones.

Chiefs and Pirates are supposedly among Africa’s fiercest rivals, but the fans mixed freely in unreserved seating. It was not the like sharp divisions of an English ground with its steel barriers, phalanxes of stewards and sea of arms raised in obscene gestures. There was some mildly irritating hectoring between rival supporters, but it never seemed likely to turn nasty. “I hate the tribalism of English football,” said a friend. “You don’t get violence at South African games. They have enough outside.”

But I did miss the English fans’ caustic humour, self-deprecating asides and songs passed on from fathers to sons. Instead, South Africans blew their vuvuzelas, long plastic horns that collectively make a sound like a million angry bees. I confidently predict this, not crime or lack of transport, will be the first international controversy at next year’s World Cup.

In South Africa, football, unlike the other colonial games, cricket and rugby, has long been played mainly by black people. It became woven into community culture, just as in working-class Victorian England, and gained such mass popularity in townships that it was inevitably aligned with political resistance. Orlando Pirates, born in 1937, became a rallying point of social solidarity and self-worth. In 1951 non-whites formed the South African Soccer Federation, which opposed apartheid in sport.

Meanwhile numerous former English and Scottish internationals played in South Africa in the 70s. The long forgotten Cape Town City boasted Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Francis Lee, Frank McLintock and Geoff Hurst who, along with being the first player to score a World Cup final hat-trick, is said to be the first white goalscorer in Soweto.

Last week I met Terry Paine, the former Southampton and England striker who moved to South Africa 25 years ago and now works as a TV commentator. He recalled coming here on tour in the 70s. “We played in Soweto,” he said. “It was a very different place then, I can tell you.”

Kaizer Chiefs versus Orlando Pirates was billed as one of football’s great duels, ranking alongside Barcelona versus Real Madrid, Celtic versus Rangers and Boca Juniors versus River Plate. The country’s deputy president, Kgalema Motlanthe, was among the 40 000 sell-out crowd last weekend for the first Soweto derby to be played at Orlando, dubbed the spiritual home of South African football, for more than a quarter of a century.

In fact it was fairly dire, with countless unforced errors, woeful finishing and a distinct lack of pace or purpose on a badly kept pitch.

Kick-off was delayed by 15 minutes because of a dispute over the Chiefs’ goalkeeper wearing a jersey that was too close in colour to the Pirates’ strip.

The Chiefs hit the post with five seconds left and had to settle for a goalless draw. Both sides would struggle even in the English lower divisions, but often local derbies are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

The miserable form of the South African national team is now causing alarm for the World Cup organisers. Eight defeats in nine matches led to the sacking last month of their Brazilian coach, Joel Santana, and the reappointment of former coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. South Africa are ranked 85th in the world, behind Togo, Uzbekistan, El Salvador, New Zealand and Mozambique. An early exit for “Bafana Bafana” will potentially undo 15 years’ work that has gone in to making the World Cup a feelgood feast for the nation.

As I joined the throng leaving Orlando Stadium, my cellphone beeped. It was an SMS from my dad: “17 mins. Stoke 1 wolves 0.” We’re both Wolves supporters and the scoreline delivered a mild and all too familiar sting. I’ve seen games at Wembley and West Bromwich, in Paris and Vienna, in Rio and Soweto. But for me, as for any fan, there’s only one result that really matters. – guardian.co.uk