Downs enter the Fifth Dimension

FROM THE STANDS: Loftus Versfeld

Sundowns 3 – 2 Chippa United

Is it a coincidence that the Twilight Zone reboot began this month? Visiting Loftus Versfeld on a Tuesday afternoon certainly felt like a trip to the Fifth Dimension — “the middle ground between light and shadow”.

Pulling up to the stadium, traffic was at a merciful minimum. Metro Police officers stood idle, freed from their duties of arguing with annoyed motorists trying to get past the barricades. Car guards lingered, as sullen as the slate skies above. They are accustomed to leaping in front of vehicles on match days, but the ample parking spaces rendered their usual advances redundant.

Wafts from the boerewors stands on entry into the grounds were less intense. The merchandise hawkers were few and far between. Those that turned up were muted. The booming drum-track that routinely echoes through the passageways was absent.

This is the picture of football at 3pm on Tuesday. On the back of Easter Weekend, yes, but still a regular working day. You could hardly pick a more odd timeslot for a match in a seven-day week if you tried.

Still, over the course of 90 minutes, everyone did their part to ensure all negative expectations were buried.

When the first whistle blew, the stands mirrored the barren nature of the exterior. The opening exchanges felt like a park game, thanks to the player shouts and coaches’ instructions that echoed in the emptiness.

But as the minutes ticked on, more and more spectators trickled into the stadium. The endless light-blue seats began to be dotted with people. Eventually it culminated into a four-figure attendance. Nothing compared with what you’d usually get from such a high-stakes game in the Premier Soccer League, yet definitely on the higher end of what was estimated.

Adding to the eerie unfamiliarity of the occasion was the link Sundowns seemed to establish with the growing crowd. As they improved their play on the pitch, the numbers increased off it.

It’s a good thing they did, too, because their opening attacks were woefully incoherent. After Chippa United punished them with the opening goal you could envision everything going downhill. Their title challenge flushed into the abyss.

The slow start is not unfamiliar to the Brazilians. Like the car your grandfather keeps in the garage, they can be slow to warm up but purr beautifully once in full flow.

From the moment they conceded, they did just that. For the remaining 65-odd minutes, the ball was spread across the field with pace and purpose. Such was the dominance that even at 1-1 the result seemed certain. When Sibusiso Vilakazi made it 2-1 it looked beyond doubt. Gastón Sirino’s third was the cherry on top.

Chippa didn’t exactly put up a stern resistance. On the second, Tebogo Langerman looked as if he had an acre of land to himself after he was found in the box. For Sirino, all the Uruguayan had to do was stand still and the defenders happily passed him the ball.

Once Rhulani Manzini delivered a neat half-volley into the net to make it 3-2 a surreal atmosphere spread over the ground. No one knew how to react to the procession turning into a contest. The nerves were palpable as it dawned on everyone that this had become anything-can-happen-Tuesday.

Thanks largely to goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene, the unthinkable never did occur. Given how useless Chippa were, a draw would have taken this Twilight Zone analogy to new heights.

But Masandawana survived and restored a sense of normality. Three points mean that the next time they play here, presumably in front of a bigger crowd, they’ll do so still as title contenders.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

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

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