Since the 2010 World Cup final, the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg rarely fills its 95,000 seats. Twice a year, however, the buzz of vuvuzelas and hordes of fans leaves the stadium ablaze.
The tragic past and the lively present is savored as the Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs takes place.
On Saturday afternoon, the Pirates, who are third in the South African league will host Chiefs, current leaders for their 160th meeting.
“That’s life and blood of South African football,” summarizes Thomas Kwenaite, a well known columnist in South Africa ahead of the mouth watering clash. “Both teams cannot afford a defeat,” he adds, “it’s a matter of pride.”
The passions aroused by the duel go much beyond Soweto, the famous township at the forefront of the struggle against racial apartheid and which led to the fall of discrimination in 1994.
From Cape Town to Pretoria, passing through Durban or Port Elizabeth, the Soweto derby ignites the country. It is either “Bucs” (the “Buccaneers”, the nickname of the Pirates) or “Amakhosi for Life” ( “Kings of life,” the slogan of Chiefs).
Unlike those rivalries which don other football grounds in the world, this rivalry does not separate the different political, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
The rivalry first started after a betrayal by one Kaizer Motaung, who first played professional football for Pirates before he relocated to the United States where he played in the North American Soccer League.
Violence and drama
When Motaung returned to his home country in 1970, he decided to start his own professional soccer team. Motaung named his club “Kaizer Chiefs” after himself and his former NASL team.
Motaung’s decision was however seen as a provocation. “There were many threats at the time because the people could not accept my departure from Pirates”, he confided.
Unsurprisingly, the first matches between the two teams were very tense. In 1972, a brawl broke out when fans of the Pirates decided to block the exits in a stadium after they lost a match.
“All those who had the Chiefs jerseys colors were hit and were forced to don the hallmark of the Pirates,” recalls Thomas Kwenaite.
For many years, Soweto was the scene of severe fighting between supporters, who used to attend with hardhats.
It is also notorious for its tragedies. In 1991, a stampede in a small stadium in Johannesburg which housed a “friendly” meeting between the two clubs caused the death of 42 spectators.
The scene was repeated ten years later, this time at Ellis Park. A stampede on the ground left 43 dead.
“I was on the field that day and I never want to relive what happened,” said Muhsin Ertugral, a Turk who coached the Chiefs at the time, but who now leads the Pirates today.
Timeless dramas seem to be over now. Pirates and Chiefs spectators have kept their helmets, but only for displaying the colors of their favorite club. And they now mingle in the stands for a joyful carnival.
“It is called the beautiful game + +. I have never seen a stadium where fans mix for such a match. The result is not always great, but the atmosphere is always amazing,” agrees Muhsin Ertugral.
“Sometimes Pirates fans do not accept defeat and give in to violence but it is not as intense as in the past,” says Thomas Kwenaite.
But the rivalry still persists. Sometimes to the point of separating the closest.
“The derbies do not start when players come on the field or even in the stands, they start within each family,” says former Pirates striker Jerry “Legs of Thunder” Sikhosana.
At 47, the former idol of Orlando has never hidden his love for the Chiefs. But he assures that he never made sense in the field.
“Before the derby, the atmosphere is different. Even players who usually do not always give their all redouble their efforts to be part of the starting lineup,” recalls Jerry Sikhosana.
“As a coach, you must ensure that your players keep quiet, are not won by emotions, but during the game, the game plan is quickly forgotten,” concludes Muhsin Ertugral.