The derby heads to Durban

South Africa’s biggest sporting event is a celebration of past glories played out by fading footballing powers.

Tickets for Kaizer Chiefs’ clash with Orlando Pirates in the semifinal of the Telkom Knockout at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Saturday were sold out in a matter of hours. Not days or weeks of contemplation by a sporting public crippled by a tough economy, a long 2018 and some of the derbies between these giants ending in dull draws. Hours.

That remains the pull of South Africa’s most visible, if not vivid, rivalry; a pair of protagonists whose past remains much more glittering than their present. And yet, for generations of South Africans who grew up understanding this as the most important fixture on the sporting calendar, all those variables do not matter.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, even in the blazing heat of a political cauldron, the derby was a cathartic experience, a collective outlet for pain and pleasure in the eternal pursuit of bragging rights. The fixture divided families. Football mattered – perhaps not as much as Bill Shankly might have reckoned, but enough to the majority of the population who had only free-to-air TV stations and radio as their sources of entertainment.

If you close your eyes and allow the mind to wander back to the early 1990s, you can still hear the incomparable Zama Masondo calling the action, taking millions on to the pitch of FNB Stadium – living, breathing and kicking every ball. At that stage, Chiefs and Pirates were truly the biggest and best clubs in the country, providing a magnetic collision of footballing philosophies and supporter cultures.

Black and white or black and gold?

Your social standing rested heavily on whether you were black and white, or one of the glamour boys, sporting the appropriate black and gold. Not yellow, mind you – gold, as the inspiration behind the rise of the boys from Phefeni had always intended. Theirs was the colour of South Africa’s most evocative mineral, because they wanted to be the shimmering standard on the field of play.

So, the choice was simple. Were you a pantsula, in the style of Ernest “Botsotso” Makhanya, or a slicker, cheese-boy operator like the silky Doctor “16V” Khumalo? Naturally, there were mini duels all over the pitch, even amid the larger rivalry between the two halves of the largest township in the country. The football itself was liberating, an intoxicating blend of braggadocio and beastly intent.

Before simulation and the age of prima donnas, the tackles flew in – and so too did the tsamayas and the shibobos. It was a time when South African football was at its most expressive and, by extension, at its peak. Apartheid took away an unimaginable amount from so many people, including robbing international fans of the chance to see the very best of South African football.

Tellingly, the national team was at its strongest when the two biggest clubs in the land were the ones arguing over the most significant prizes. Sure, the likes of Moroka Swallows, when the Dube Birds still flew high, the disrespectful KwaZulu-Natal twins of AmaZulu and African Wanderers, and an emerging, energetic Mamelodi Sundowns would pop up to disturb the peace from time to time. But the mettle was provided by Soweto.

The clubs’ influence stretched far beyond Kliptown and Vilakazi Street. They rose from being mere football identities to become an expression of popular culture. Lucas Radebe’s Chiefs’ roots inspired the name for a British band as they paid homage to the club that gave Yorkshire its eternal “chief”.

Football as high society

It’s little surprise that tickets for the Durban match sold out as though they were part of a Black Friday special. Durbanites have, for decades, made the long trek from KwaMashu, Imbali, Mnambithi and beyond, crammed into overnight taxis, just to soak up the derby experience in the cathedral of FNB Stadium.

In recent years, as much of Soweto’s footballing power has been expropriated by Pitso Mosimane’s pragmatism and Patrice Motsepe’s millions at Sundowns, the pull of the derby has become as much a social event as a sporting one.

The rise of social media, the emergence of influencers and likers of things has seen the derby ticket become a status symbol. The loftier the seat, the higher the social standing. There, high up in the prawn and short-rib seats, sit the politicians, powerful business figures, and society’s well-heeled and immaculately groomed. The cameramen play their paparazzi part, too, ogling the good times and reminding those at home just how much they are missing out. It is a marketing masterpiece, oblivious to the reality of the 90 minutes.

If you stage it, they will come

It has become an annual “I was there” moment, regardless of how forgettable the football is. In many ways, the Soweto Derby is football’s answer to the Durban July. It is a party organised around a sporting event. And, just like the name of the winner of the main horse race, the score evaporates as urgently as the bubbles flow for the majority of those who attend.

For all that, for all the footballing tripe that usually follows the significant hype, fans will always flock to this event because of the eternal promise of a return to the fixture’s glory days. Like the incredible run of 3-1 victories for the Buccaneers, when Neil Tovey was given twisted blood by Jerry Sikhosana, or the halcyon days of Doc Khumalo and Donald “Ace” Khuse exchanging a dozen short, crisp passes, as if in a world of their own – South Africa’s kasi version of tiki-taka, before it became an international trend.

That is what the derby used to be: a delicious expression of South African excellence, and a two-hour escape from the rigours of daily life. In its present guise, the football is not always the main event. But the promise of those glory days coming back – when the goals fly as freely as the champagne corks from the audience, when the referee is but a lucky spectator instead of the main event, when three points matter because they may decide the championship – will always keep fans flocking back.

For Durban, home to an impatient audience prone to pitch invasions and with a propensity for violence, hosting the derby is an opportunity to remind the broader derby disciples that bringing this party to the coast is no mistake. The road trip will be from the other direction, with GP number plates dominating the N3 umbilical cord between the sea and the City of Gold.

That has always been the pull of the derby: it doesn’t matter where it is, the people will come, because its whiff of nostalgia is irresistible. That and the Instagram posts, the melodrama, and the bumbling battle for bragging rights between two fading powers desperately trying to bring back the glory days.

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