‘I think my earliest childhood memories are those of the previous Orlando Stadium, which had a sand athletics track around it,” recalls Orlando Pirates assistant coach Rhulani Mokwena.
Mokwena will not be the only one overcome by nostalgia during derby week. Every South African football fan has at least a few fond memories of the biggest game in the country. There is a reason for sold-out stadiums.
“It’s grown to be bigger and better. At a certain moment it was played at Ellis Park and now can only be staged at FNB Stadium because of its magnitude,” Mokwena continued. “It goes to show how big the derby has become in terms of commercial and even from a technical perspective. The standard of football, regardless of the opinions of certain other people, has been relatively good over the last couple of years.
“I experienced my first derby a couple of months ago. To be part of the match, to be part of the experience, to be part of the tensions, the emotions and everything that goes with being involved in that sort of environment. These are just some of the steps that one has to go through in their path as a young coach and trying to get a feel of what it’s like to be part of a big team and what it’s like to be involved in probably one of the biggest games on the continent.”
There is a reason Mokwena felt the need to clarify the status of the derby as the premier event in local football. Years of underachievement and managerial flux have left the Buccaneers faithful disillusioned. Until now, the team has struggled to stay among the elite at the top end of the PSL, let alone challenge for the league title.
Perhaps more significant is the recent spate of boring draws that have been pumped out of the FNB Stadium. The disappointment has almost become a meme. TimesLive on Tuesday even went as far as giving “Five reasons why derby between Pirates and Chiefs could end in a draw”.
This time round, however, it’s hard not to get gripped by the excitement. It may be hyperbole to suggest victory or death, but both coaches know that should they lose, and Sundowns beat, AmaZulu, they could be swiftly frozen out of the title race. A draw is quite simply not an option.
“I don’t know when was the last time that you had Mamelodi Sundowns, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs at this stage of the league in the position where they are,” Chiefs coach Steve Komphela said. “Football scholars will be conducting a study and looking at the consequences for South African football. There’s no derby that I’ve been involved in that have had this position and high stakes.”
Amakhosi have been solid at the back this season, but have drawn criticism for their lack of bite up front. Komphela, however, has promised that he will show no mercy, given the significance of the game.
“I wouldn’t even know my father — I wouldn’t even recognise him. Come match day he minds his own, I mind mine and it’s just war for one and a half hours.”
The strain that such an important derby could have on loved ones was not lost on Pirates coach Milutin Sredojevic either: “It will happen that, in one family, different members of the family support different teams,” he remarked.
“This is our responsibility, bearing in mind that we can close the gap on the leading Sundowns. It will not be that much calculation, we will go all out in attack. I’m talking about attack; no one has ever won by talking.”