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Soweto derby is the greatest, deadliest and most colourful rivalry in South African sport

Soweto derby is the greatest, deadliest and most colourful rivalry in South African sport
Fans during the Absa Premiership match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at FNB Stadium on 9 November 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

When Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates clash, South African sports fans sit up in their chairs because it’s impossible to ignore.

The 90,000-strong sell-out crowd at cavernous Soccer City on Saturday, and a week full of extensive build-up, marked the Soweto soccer derby as arguably the country’s biggest sporting fixture.

The derby combines hard-core supporters with a growing band of social glitterati for whom to be seen at the match is much like going to the Durban July, even if they would not know the front end of a horse from the back.

The league clash between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates was the first time since the Covid pandemic that the two clubs could play against each other in front of their fans.

Chiefs won 1-0 this time around, to claim the bragging rights for the next few months.

The pandemic blow to the pocket for both Chiefs and Pirates has been reflected in their inability to properly compete in the transfer market with Patrice Motsepe’s Mamelodi Sundowns  and both clubs are well off the pace in the league race.

Government restrictions on spectators forced six matches (four league games and two cup ties) behind closed doors and, according to the stadium management, cost hundreds of millions in lost revenue.

Long gone are the days when the two clubs had the pick of talent in the country and when every young boy’s dream was to wear either the black and gold colours of Chiefs or the Pirates skull and crossbones on their chest.  

Soweto Derby

Kaizer Chiefs fans celebrate during an Absa Premiership match against Orlando Pirates at FNB Stadium on 29 February 2020. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Khama Billiat of Kaizer Chiefs and Xola Mlambo of Orlando Pirates during the Absa Premiership match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at FNB Stadium on 9 November 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Deadliest rivalry

Chiefs are now in an eighth season without any success while Pirates have fared only marginally better, having won a single trophy since 2014.

Not that this matters much in terms of the rivalry, now more than a half century old with a rich history, still at the apex of the domestic football calendar, all absorbing but also stained in blood. It is not only South African sport’s most intense rivalry but is also the deadliest, with 87 deaths in various stadium incidents at past meetings.

A pre-season friendly at Orkney’s Ernest Oppenheimer Stadium in January 1991 saw 42 crushed in a stampede as fighting broke out among the crowd after a disputed goal on the pitch.

A decade on, the Ellis Park tragedy of April 2001 saw 43 killed as spectators, most without tickets, broke down fences and caused a crush in the tunnels leading to the stands as they rushed to watch the game. 

No one was ever held responsible for the tragedies, despite the overwhelming evidence of poor organisation and corrupt practices, and the legacy of those incidents still casts a shadow over the fixture’s history.

The rivalry is born of an acrimonious split in the Pirates ranks around the independence of Swaziland in 1968, when the new country celebrated its new nationhood by inviting two important personages to the celebration of the kingdom’s detachment from British rule – the Queen and Orlando Pirates.

The British monarch could not make it, but Pirates readily agreed to play a celebratory  match. But the players were not paid by their own officials, leading to an angry walkout, led by the spirited personality of manager Ewert “The Lip” Nene and with star player Kaizer Motaung as the focal point.

It was two years before the start of the National Professional Soccer League and so the invitation-only Kaizer XI played weekend after weekend of friendly “stake” matches.

They travelled the length and breadth of the country – and across the borders – to take on all comers for cash stakes put up by local promoters.

Inadvertently, they quickly built a popular brand, and by 1971, when the new league finally got under way, a rivalry was already in place. 

Referee Thando Nzdandzeka stops the fight between players during the Absa Premiership match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at FNB Stadium on 9 November 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)


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Curtain-raiser no more

Ironically, however, the first-ever Chiefs-Pirates clash was a curtain raiser to the final of the Rogue Beer Cup between Moroka Swallows Big XV and PUBS, but the Orlando Stadium crowd was really there to see whether Pirates would stuck it to the new upstarts or Chiefs would cock a snook at their “parent” club.

In an era when tactics and defending were not considered and players were given free rein to dazzle, Pirates proved too strong and won 6-4.

There have been many absorbing battles since … and a number of “snore fests”, too.

In early 1972, Chiefs came back after being two goals down at half-time and losing Ace Ntsoelengoe to injury to beat Pirates 7-3 after extra time in the Champion of Champions final, second leg tie, at Orlando Stadium.

Two years later, Chiefs had to hang on for victory as Pirates staged a dramatic turnaround in the second half of the game but came one goal short of defeat after trailing 0-4. 

The two clubs were the first black clubs to play in a “whites-only” stadium in the first multiracial club tournament in 1975 when a capacity, and fervent, crowd took over the Rand Stadium for the Chevrolet Champion of Champions semi-final.

It took penalties to settle the outcome, though both teams were reluctant to participate in the shootout as it was new to them.

They had to be warned of possible disqualification from the tournament if they did not.

The fierce rivals were also the first to play at Ellis Park when that apartheid barrier fell in 1982 and the home of Transvaal rugby quickly usurped Orlando Stadium as the “headquarters” of South African football.

The first derby at Soccer City was played in 1989, and the following year saw the Buccaneers’ finest hour in the history of the derby as they thrashed Chiefs 5-1.

Not only did Chiefs suffer a major humiliation against their arch rivals but the result effectively ended any chance they had of catching Mamelodi Sundowns in that year’s title chase.

Pirates were playing under stand-in coach Johannes “Skipper” Khomane after Dave Roberts had been fired five weeks earlier; but Chiefs’ defence was non-existent, especially after Mark Tovey had been dropped.

“You could have driven a bus through it,” wrote one reporter at the time.

In 2007, the derby was moved to Durban to offer visitors a glimpse of the best of South African league football on the eve of the preliminary draw for the 2010 World Cup.

It was also screened on Eurosport for the first time. The game at King’s Park was kicked off by Franz Beckenbauer and French World Cup winner Christian Karembeu but those stars were quickly forgotten in a dream start for AmaKhosi, with Moses Khenyeza scored after just 19 seconds.

But Chiefs then conceded twice and it was left to Arthur Zwane – Chiefs’ current coach – to arrive at the back post and head home for a 2-2 draw. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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