A football fan from Argentina would probably rub his eyes in disbelief were he to find himself at FNB Stadium on 9 February at 3.30pm. How in the world, he would ask, can fans of a country’s supposed biggest rivalry sit among each other in a football match without wanting to kill each other?
It is perhaps one of football’s biggest mysteries, yet also what makes the Soweto Derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs the special event it is. You see, derbies the world over are renowned for their tension – not only on the pitch but in the stands too. Such is the rivalry between some that deaths are commonplace and the heavy presence of security and police is a must.
In Argentina recently, violence led to the Superclásico between River Plate and Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires being postponed twice (the second leg of which did not even kick off) and saw Fifa president Gianni Infantino leaving the stadium under escort. In the end, the second leg had to be taken away from the South American country and played in Spain.
“Can you imagine us taking the Soweto Derby to Zimbabwe?” Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza asked. “We cannot export violence through sport.”
However, this strange yet beautiful kaleidoscope of Chiefs’ yellow and gold mingled with Pirates’ black and white and a touch of red that will be seen throughout the FNB stands is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Soweto Derby used to be like all “normal” derbies, in which opposing fans cannot stand the sight of the other and occupy opposite ends of the arena. Violent clashes were commonplace, and deaths did occur.
Ellis Park stampede
“Off course we’ve had our fair share of bad moments in the past where fans of the opposing sides fought each other,” Khoza said, careful not to make it seem as though Pirates and Chiefs have always had the lovey-dovey relationship they currently do.
“You’ll remember that there was that incident of a brother killing his own brother in Umlazi because of the results of the derby. And another sad story – although not violent related – was during the Ellis Park stampede (in 2001 when 43 fans died as they tried to force their way into the stadium). A Zimbabwean couple went to that match and because they supported different teams they went separate ways promising to see each other after the game. The wife died in that stampede. But now even though they do not support the same team, families can sit together at the stadium without a worry of being attacked by the other fans.”
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That there was previously bitter rivalry among the fans to the extent of violence at matches had to do with how Kaizer Chiefs came to be.
“There was this kind of reluctance from the Pirates fans to accept that Kaizer (Motaung, the Chiefs chairman and club owner) was gone. And so Chiefs became a very bitter rival. The supporters can be too possessive and given what Kaizer had done for Pirates his departure to form another club was not easily accepted,” Khoza said.
Such non-acceptance also led to the two clubs competing for talent, with Chiefs’ flamboyant official the late Ewert “The Lip” Nene managing to secure the services of one Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, whom Pirates were also after. Nene is said to have gone to the late Ntsoelengoe’s home in Randfontein and hid him under a blanket in his car to bring him to Soweto to sign for Chiefs. Nene, though, would be cruelly killed when on a mission to sign another young talent in the form of Nelson “Teenage” Dladla from the East Rand.
Back then, in the late 70s and early 80s, Chiefs and Pirates were such bitter rivals that matches between them often led to fights between fans. That, though, has changed. But the turnaround in relations between the two clubs had to do with something much bigger than just building camaraderie between opposing fans.
Uniting a divided province
“During that time of the violence in KwaZulu-Natal, we felt we could not just fold our hands and watch people killing each other. So we organised the Vodacom Challenge (a four-team competition launched in 1999 that saw Chiefs and Pirates taking on opposition teams from around the continent) and took it there,” Khoza said.
“People from different political spectrums came to the match and for that day the violence ceased. It is still the case now. The Soweto Derby brings together people of different political views, even leaders. You have seen the likes of Mmusi Maimane (Democratic Alliance), Bantu Holomisa (United Democratic Movement), Julius Malema (Economic Freedom Fighters), Malusi Gigaba (African National Congress) sitting together watching the match. The derby helps to kill the political and economic tension in the country. It is very important that sport helps with cohesion in a country, it must not be divisive.”
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Away from the political sphere and back to the football arena, a cordial relationship between Chiefs and Pirates was a necessity, Khoza says.
“Of course we are competitors and for 90 minutes it is a war between the two clubs. We are the market leaders and there is tension naturally. But we are cooperating. We work together for the good of the game. We have a vibrant and dynamic league because we are able to be sober away from the madness of the 90 minutes.”
Khoza gave the example of how the move from amateur to professional football in the country could only happen if Chiefs and Pirates were in the same boat. “When we were forming the NSL (National Soccer League – professional football’s governing body in the country), breweries (South African Breweries, who sponsored the then league via their brand Castle) said they would not sponsor if the league did not have both Chiefs and Pirates. If we did not cooperate, there would be no PSL (Premier Soccer League) now,” Khoza said.
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Part of that contribution, Khoza explained, has seen the two clubs agreeing to an equal share of revenues among the league’s clubs – a model totally different to the top leagues in the world, where the big guns enjoy a bigger share of the pie given their pulling power.
“All over the world, the model says the big clubs get more. Here we share equally. It is because of this cooperation that we now have the grants that all the teams in the league get,” Khoza said.
Commercially it all makes sense. But football-wise? Some feel the derby has been diluted by the relationship between the two clubs - who also share most of their sponsors.
“The rivalry is still there and you see it in every match we play. But remember that football is some kind of hospital which helps ease people’s pains. We build a feel-good factor for people in this country. Sure there is the hurt when a team loses because the bragging rights go to the others. But it was good for us to dilute the tension and the rivalry because now people no longer really fight over the match. The derby has become a place to be seen at, a fashion statement of sorts.”
Out in Argentina they probably would laugh if we told them Chiefs and Pirates is the country’s greatest rivalry. But then again South Africa has never been a country to follow the norm, has it?