Soweto derby: More than three points

“The history of football is a sad voyage from beauty to duty,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in Football in Sun and Shadow. Football has become an “industry”. It’s perfectly natural to speak of a football club in the same breath as a mining house—indeed, African Rainbow Minerals’ boss, Patrice Motsepe, also owns Pretoria club Mamelodi Sundowns.

In football’s virgin state, before the corporates took over, the fan would declare “we play today”. Now he says “my club plays today”. The trainer used to say to his players “let’s play”; now the manager has replaced the trainer and tells his employees to “go to work”.

The derby is the closest thing in the modern game to football’s primitive origins. It has it all: the madness and passion, the tribalism and the tribe’s claim to a territory—the quest to “own” a locale, be it Soweto (Kaizer Chiefs vs Orlando Pirates); Cairo (Al Alhly vs Zamalek); Buenos Aires (Boca Juniors vs River Plate); Manchester (United vs City).

This year’s Soweto derby between Pirates and Chiefs has the cinders to light it up. The match will decide which way, come season’s end, the league title will go. It is one of the few occasions when the roar of the opposing sets of fans can match the architectural grandeur of Soccer City; when the fans’ combined manic energies seem to shake up the foundations of the edifice.

Pirates are sitting at the top of the log, Chiefs are in second place, just two points behind. Both teams have a feeling that two points were squandered over the weekend.

Pirates, playing at home to Amazulu, had to come from behind with a 90th-minute goal by Happy Jele. Chiefs, playing away to Santos, also came back from a goal down to snatch a draw. Football pundits have duly noted that the two teams, as usually happens ahead of a derby, have dropped points. The priority is the spectacle ahead—nothing else matters.

Many derbies in recent years have felt like scraps between two formerly powerful gangs whose feuds seemed to be only about honour, the code and nothing more.

There’s no new territory, no new sources of revenue to be fought for; it’s all for honour’s sake.

But for the first time in years this duel has far-reaching consequences. Whoever wins won’t only get the twin rights of months-long gloating and the freedom of the “city” of Soweto; there’s also a crucial three pointsto be gained on the rival. A win by either of the teams might mean that the premiership title, for long dominated by Pretoria teams, will finally move south to one of the Soweto teams or even further south to Ajax who play Free State Stars this Friday.

Their previous league match, played on November 13, in which Pirates comprehensively lost 3-1, must fester in the memory of the minds of players and fans alike. It was a ritual killing repeated a few weeks laterin the Telkom Knockout final, a game in which Pirates lost 3-0.

Last year’s league match, as in any morality tale, provided clear heroes and villains. Chiefs’ hero was striker Knowledge Musona and Pirates’ villain was defender Lucky Lekgwathi. At a press briefing earlier this week, Chiefs coach Vladimir Vermezovic said his team have a better record against their rivals. He spoke about a “lot of improvement in the derby” and highlighted the comedy defending that cost Pirates last year.

Zimbabwean striker Musona’s predatory traits—the prowling gait, the sly demeanour, quick runs and killer strikes—were examplary.

That day was, in a sense, the occasion when Musona inserted himself into South Africa’s football narrative—or historiography, as the intellectuals would grandly put it. He was totally dominant, playing a part in the match’s crucial moments, scoring two goals and setting up another. Musona, who plays what is sometimes called the false number nine—a cross of the conventional “fox in the box” striker folded into theattacking midfielder—has gone on to win two Premier Soccer League player of the month awards in succession. He is the league’s leading scorer with 11 goals.

But until his goal last week, a penalty, he hadn’t scored in nine matches. In an interview with the Sowetan, last year’s villain Lekgwathi said: “People were blaming me for our loss in that match and I accepted the blame ... but things are different now and we want revenge. Chiefs are not a one-man team,” he said, and then immediately contradicted himself by adding, “We must still make sure that when Musona gets the ball somebody must be close to him.”

Don’t believe it when the coaches say there is nothing more to this match than the three points they are playing for. Three points from a derby are worth much more.

As Galeano so succinctly put it, football is a “ritual sublimation of war”. And the derby remains the only spectacle that doesn’t feel like a corporate retreat. It’s war—the only war that the United Nations security council doesn’t have to condemn.

Percy Zvomuya

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