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Soweto Derby remains marquee sports fixture of unity, even as magic of yesteryear evaporates

Soweto Derby remains marquee sports fixture of unity, even as magic of yesteryear evaporates
Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates fans arrive to support their teams at FNB Stadium on 11 November 2023 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

The latest edition of the Soweto Derby takes place this weekend. With Mamelodi Sundowns leaving both Kaizer Chiefs and Pirates trailing behind in the league race, it is merely for bragging rights. 

In terms of attendance and general interest in it whenever it comes around, the Soweto Derby remains the biggest fixture in South African football.

From staunch supporters of both Orlando Pirates and Kaizer, to primary school children, to people who don’t even know what an offside is. The Soweto Derby commands the attention of all.

It is the fixture that even opposition supporters likely look out for first when the matchups for each impending season are made public. After all, it is one of the biggest derbies in Africa, alongside the Moroccan derby of Raja Casablanca versus Wydad Casablanca, as well as Al Ahly’s fierce and ferocious battles with Zamalek in Egypt.

Soweto Derby

Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates players during an intense exchange. (Photo: Lefty Shivambu / Gallo Images)

Parent and child

Amakhosi and the Buccaneers first met in an official game on 24 January 1970 in the playoff for third place in the Rogue Beer Cup, shortly after Chiefs were founded by former Pirates player Kaizer Motaung, on 7 January of the same year.

Chiefs were first to draw blood over the more experienced and established Pirates in the first league meetings between the sides in 1971. Amakhosi did the double, winning 4-3 and 2-1 in the old National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).

Due to the free-flowing nature of football at the time, with tactics and positional play not as rigid as they are now, the derby was an open and entertaining affair. Often showcasing all that is great about South African football.

This rivalry continued into the mid-1990s, when the Premier Soccer League (PSL) was founded. Now, with the country’s football becoming more structured and organisational, goals were not as prevalent as in the earlier years of the derby.

Pirates do boast the record for the biggest derby win of the PSL era. A mammoth 5-1 victory back in 1998.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Most memorable Soweto Derby encounters of the PSL era

In this day and age, such a score is extremely unlikely. Even though there have been no draws in recent encounters, both teams tend to play more not to lose the match, than they do to emerge victorious. Or even entertain the masses.

The derby is often characterised by close scores. In fact, the eight most recent clashes between the two rivals have been decided by one-goal margins — with neither of the pair managing to score more than two goals in each instance.

Chiefs boast the better record in that period, with five wins to the three of the Buccaneers. The Sea Robbers clinched the most recent skirmish with a 1-0 win in November.

Soweto Derby

Fans watch during the DStv Premiership match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at FNB Stadium on 11 November 2023 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

The good thing is that there has been no draw in that period. Nevertheless, it’s clear to see that even though FNB Stadium still buzzes with activity during these derby clashes, the football being played seldom has anything to do with it.

Just like the Durban July, the Soweto Derby was always a hybrid event. On one hand, it was about the sumptuous football that would be on display on that day. On the other, it was a social event that affluent people and politicians had to make an appearance at. Now, just like the Durban July, it is almost exclusively about the latter.

This in part is influenced by the fact that both Pirates and Chiefs have been a part of the supporting cast in Mamelodi Sundowns DStv Premiership show.

The last time Chiefs won the league, or any major trophy for that matter, was in 2015. For the Sea Robbers, overall league victory last came in 2012. Nonetheless, the Bucs have managed to pick up a couple of domestic trophies in recent seasons.

The impact of this poor league form is that the Soweto sides are usually just playing for pride. In fact, heading into this derby Amakhosi trail Sundowns by 13 points, while Pirates are 12 points behind. Both sides have played three more games than the unbeaten defending champions.

Soweto Derby

Final whistle confirms Orlando Pirates’ win against Kaizer Chiefs at FNB Stadium on 11 November 2023. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi / Gallo Images)

Times gone by

Former Pirates and Chiefs midfielders Teko “The Navigator” Modise and Reneilwe “Yeye” Letsholonyane — who clashed in multiple derbies between 2008 and 2011 — reminisced on what the derby meant during their active years.

Speaking on Supersport Unplugged, Modise shared that prior to every derby Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza would drill it into their ears that they must leave their souls on the pitch during the match.

“He would say ‘as much as we want the result, you must remember that for people who come to the stadium, football is therapeutic. Sometimes they use their last R20 to buy a ticket, despite having problems. This game will make them forget their problems, just for 90 minutes’. He used to drill that into me,” Modise said.

“If you look at how I played in the derby, it’s totally different to when I was playing against SuperSport United or whatever other team. Because the derby brings all sorts of people to the stadium, some who are not regular stadiumgoers. Back then, the derby was equal to playing for the national team. That was the importance of playing in the derby,” the former Bafana Bafana maestro stated.

“Every home game, Bra K would come to the stadium. But he would not come into the change room. The exception was the derby. Just to stress the importance of the derby,” Letsholonyane added of Chiefs chairman Motaung’s derby ritual.

The latest edition of the long-standing rivalry takes place on Saturday, 9 February. Kickoff is at 3:30pm. DM

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  • Ismail Lagardien says:

    As a thorough Pirates (and Arsenal) supporter from toeka, I have to say that the “demise” of Chiefs (Manchester United) is actually a BIT sad. We may be rivals of the extreme kind, but the league needs Chiefs/Man United.

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