New start for stop-start Chiefs

FROM THE STANDS

From the perspective of the Planetarium end at Bidvest Stadium, Wednesday night felt like a true Kaizer Chiefs game. True in the sense that they became the protagonists of the night’s story — their opponents transformed into faceless figures who stood in the way of a Chiefs story.

But these were not just any villains. For longtime log leaders Bidvest Wits, this was supposed to be their story; 90 minutes to consolidate the pace they set at the top of the table and bring back Amakhosi misery.

What transpired instead was a perfect synergy between those wearing yellow on and off the pitch.

The Clever Boys are accustomed to playing away games at home — Sowetans and Brazilians routinely outrank their own support. On occasions like this, however, it must start to feel lonely on the stadium’s immaculate lawns. The pockets of white Wits supporters become paler and paler, and their marching band was reduced to a mere annoyance, a whining mosquito instead of a booming presence.


But it all begins on the field.

Chiefs appeared to have brushed off the disappointment of the weekend, when they succumbed to Sundowns. It seemed to be a case of a new week. It looks like the team seems to be applying more effort, making them easier to watch — and easier to support. Although we endured 45 minutes of tactical sparring, the second stanza was pure football, with Ernst Middendorp’s new charges fully deserving the 2-0 scoreline.

Almost every member of the XI did their part to impress, despite Willard Katsande being out because of injuries. Notably, Hendrick Ekstein continued his efforts to step up. Too often in the past two seasons, the player who redefines diminutive has seemed content with a bit-part role. But he demanded to be considered as a regular first-teamer. His build-up play aside, it’s his ability to fuel the crowd that is most valuable on days like this. A student of the Cruyff turn, his flicks to create space in the midfield draw louder gasps and whistles each time. Through the jeers you can almost feel the embarrassment of his flat-footed victim.

Less surprising is the trickery of Lebogang Manyama or the pace of Leonardo Castro down the left. On both goals, the synchronicity of their attack was impossible to combat. The second initially looked to be at walking pace, such was the precision of the simple passes strung together. It was easy to forget that Khama Billiat was there and off form.

Their fans in the second half clearly motivated the Glamour Boys. Sitting in that end felt like some sort of post-modern interactive play when the audience helps to determine the actors’ next moves. The Planetarium loomed over Darren Keet’s goal as it was routinely threatened. Even the smoking Wits professors, who presumably came for a fun night and something different, were swept away by the jubilation of the occasion.

In these difficult times, Chiefs need their fans and their fans need a team that’s responsive. It’s a symbiotic relationship that requires commitment from both parties.

The morning hangover brought a familiar question: Is this a new start? Amakhosi have had so many false ones in the past year that’s it’s painful to ask. With songs of strife and overcoming troubles echoing around the ground, it’s clear the fans are daring to say yes.

The atmosphere turned jovial as Thulani Hlatshwayo struggled in vain to stay Victor Gomes’s hand from punishing the Wits mob.

A hand-cranked mobile air-raid siren made its way through the stands, joyfully screeching. It won’t be long before we know whether that was a warning of the arrival of a new determined force or merely a drill signal.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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