The EFF wouldn’t be too far from the truth in claiming to have united Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates supporters, albeit momentarily, at the Soweto derby that usually divides friends and families.
The party capitalised on the sold-out game at FNB Stadium by flying a giant flag over the full stands that read: “VOTE EFF”. Supporters of both teams cheered loudly at the sight of the flag, which made its way over the stadium several times – at one point circling over the crowds like a moth to a lightbulb. This was the only time the opposing fans cheered for something together. It was a marketing masterstroke from the party that has shaken up South Africa’s political landscape during its five years of existence.
On the pitch, another new player was shaking up the landscape in the biggest sporting event in the country. Happy Mashiane, 21, played with confidence and freedom in his Soweto derby debut. The magnitude of the moment did not faze the Chiefs development graduate, who was playing in what Pirates coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic calls the “mother of all matches”, in front of almost 90 000 fans with millions more watching on television in 40 countries.
“This is an extraordinary match, the mother of all matches in this respected country,” Sredojevic said. “We know how much the Soweto derby means, the hype that surrounds it and how many people who watch it on television. When you have that in mind, the most important job that we have to do [as the technical team] in preparation for it is to allow players to express themselves and not be intimidated by the crowd.
“A match of this magnitude, in my personal opinion, requires the same character needed for 10 ordinary matches. The derby is extraordinary. This match is an important step in the seven steps of developing yourself as an individual and as a team.”
Mashiane took a giant step forward in his development with his performance at the Soweto derby, which ended in a draw at 1-1. He might have been on the pitch for only 45 minutes, but he did enough to show that he is the real deal, just as he did in his previous two matches.
The left back, who can also play in midfield, has happy feet that attract the ball like a magnet – and when it leaves his feet, it leaves with a smile. But that smiling ball doesn’t consistently reach his teammates.
While he works on that, the Chiefs technical team will be working on his mental game to ensure he doesn’t get carried away by the love Amakhosi faithfuls have showered on him.
Chiefs supporters protested against his substitution in the game against Tornado FC, Mashiane’s professional debut, and in the match against Cape Town City. But once they realised their shouts were falling on deaf ears, they applauded Mashiane as he made his way towards the bench.
The Glamour Boys’ coach, Ernst Middendorp, has been using the young player sparingly. He said Mashiane isn’t ready for 90 minutes of play and wants to manage expectations at a club where every move by the players comes under the microscope.
“I hate this [thing] of talking about promoting players at a certain time, promoting to add numbers,” Middendorp said. “That’s not what we do. Here, from our side, we promote to the first team. We promoted Happy and he is a regular in the first team, I can say now that he will start in Port Elizabeth [against The Magic FC in the Nedbank Cup last-16 clash].
“What we have to manage, and that’s normal, is to watch these [young] guys. Sometimes 45 minutes is enough, sometimes 60 minutes is enough. But put them in!
“This was an intensive game, you can express yourself but shouldn’t get carried away. You have to see how far a player’s mindset is at certain moments. He played well and he did his job. As the technical team, we must observe him and give him the right number of minutes.”
Developing a complete player
And therein lies the question: How do you balance throwing youngsters in at the deep end while protecting them from the scrutiny they will inevitably face?
The big clubs tend to be too cautious in their assessment of their youngsters’ readiness to play in the first team. This results in stunted development, which leads to 21- and 22-year-olds being called youngsters. At that age, their development should be almost complete, with just the final touches being put in place.
“His promotion makes me believe that we’re on the right track. We are doing the right things. We just need to improve on certain aspects of the game, where we can develop a complete player,” said Chiefs reserve team coach Arthur Zwane, who worked with Mashiane for more than four years.
“As a youngster, I think that he still has a long way to go. He still has a lot to learn. He is promising. But my only problem, with us as a nation, is that a boy will play one, two or three games and then we make him believe that he is now on top of the world.
“We need to help him develop gradually, because that has killed the game in the country. We’ve had a lot of players with so much potential to represent the country at the highest level, at international level, but we kill them.
“We kill them ourselves because we make them believe that they have arrived and that they’re bigger than everything. That’s my main worry at the moment. But I know that he is a calm boy, he is very clever. He has learned from many other players who have been here, those who have been successful have been humble. He is one of the boys who I know is very humble and I hope he’ll keep it that way.”
While Mashiane’s star was rising, that of another of Zwane’s products was fading. The Soweto derby was Chiefs’ first match since announcing that Wiseman Meyiwa had been forced to retire from football.
The 19-year-old is wheelchair-bound, having been left paralysed after a car accident late last year. His teammates wore grey kit during their warm-up printed with the message: “Our journey never ends, we are always with you. Amakhosi 4 Life.”
It was a moving tribute to Meyiwa, who seemed destined for big things and possibly another Fifa World Cup with Bafana Bafana. This would have added to his appearances in the 2017 Under-20 World Cup in South Korea and the 2015 Under 17-World Cup in Chile with the first Amajimbos generation to play in the tournament.
“He is a strong lad, but you can see that this thing is taking its toll on him,” Zwane said. “He is trying to be strong. It’s tough. It’s tough for him, especially when you’re with the family and trying to encourage him because he still believes that he will walk again. I also have faith, that he will walk again, because he is still young. If Kaka was also ruled out when he was very young [yet he managed to recover, we have hope].
“The doctors said that he isn’t going to play football anymore [after he broke his sixth vertebrae at 18 and was told he would be lucky if he walked again]. He recovered and became a world star. Why not with Wiseman? Miracles do happen.
“I believe that he will walk again because if I go to him, start crying and complaining, I’ll actually make the situation worse for him. But if I see him and say, don’t worry boy, you’ll come right. It’s part of life. Maybe the man above wants us to learn from this, but we still believe that you will walk again.”
The tragic end to Meyiwa’s career serves as a reminder of our mortality. One moment can take away all you have worked towards without having reaped the rewards of your labour. It should inspire players like Mashiane to make the most of their opportunities.
Mashiane’s feet, like the rabble-rousing EFF, demand attention and know how to enthrall a crowd. It’s both a gift and a curse, motivation to keep improving but also a skill that needs to be managed to enhance the team rather than entertain the gallery.