The Soweto derby: So much more than a soccer match
Pirate vs Chiefs is our most-watched TV sports event
The Soweto derby can be overexposed, overhyped, and the action on the field too often does not live up to the immense billing – but South Africa’s biggest sporting event keeps reeling the crowds and TV audiences back.
That is because the match – contested again on Saturday at FNB Stadium between South Africa’s two biggest football teams, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs – is about so much more than just the action on the field.
There are better games in the Premier Soccer League (PSL). Pirates-Mamelodi Sundowns is almost always guaranteed to have supporters’ heart rates up, and Chiefs-Sundowns is not far behind.
In the derby, tactics can be safety first – given the hype and scale of the game, how much can be at stake for coaches (results in the derby in the past played a role in bosses staying or going), and the buildup. Six of the last eight have been draws.
But the history of the game, of the rivalry, and of the two teams with huge countrywide support bases running into millions, mean the derby remains firmly rooted as South Africa’s most-watched TV sports event.Inside FNB stadium, the 94,000 spectators turn the 2010 World Cup final venue into what can only be described as a pressure cauldron of noise. This can adversely affect adventurism on the field. But the spectacle alone is worth the entrance money.
The derby is a cultural event for which government ministers plague officials for tickets weeks before the event, to hobnob in the VIP suites with music and soapie stars sipping on expensive whiskys.
Among the cattle class, some have postponed funerals or weddings, or don’t turn up to them, to be at the derby.
Much of the enthusiasm still stems from the dark days of apartheid when the derby was one of the few bright, light moments of entertainment on a dreary calendar of hardships and trauma. And what entertainment it provided when South African football giants strode fields in the 1970s and 1980s.
The derby has outgrown the country itself. It is almost as big in neighbouring countries and, with South African pay-TV’s forays into the continent, now watched across Africa. It has been televised globally, too.For the players, like supporters, the derby date is the first one sought out when the PSL release their season’s fixtures.
“Of course it’s different. Especially since I grew being a big fanatic of the derby, knowing that whenever this game was played I had to watch,” Chiefs defender Ramahlwe Mphahlele said this week.
Mphahlele has played internationally for Bafana Bafana. He was a victor in the 2016 Caf Champions League final against Egyptian giants Zamalek with Sundowns, after a campaign experiencing crowds across the continent, including in fanatical north Africa. Still, nothing compares to the derby for him.
“The feeling is different. On the day you get messages from your family, from your supporters. The game is just all over your face.“And you will try your best to ignore the hype around it, but it will end up finding you. That’s what can make it really difficult for players to really focus on the derby.
“It’s special. You know, it’s big. When you walk in to 80,000 or 90,000 people you know you can’t set your foot wrong.”
Even at big clubs globally, not every player gets to run out in front of 90,000 people at a stadium like FNB, the fifth-biggest football arena in the world with an official capacity of 94,736.
After 11 years at Pirates, 31-year-old defender Happy Jele has lost count of his derbies, but never becomes jaded by the match.
“I still feel the same. I still feel the goosebumps when I play on that day,” he said.
“Obviously the supporters don’t like it that it can be a draw. But to us it is more important to keep tactical discipline on the field.
“If the first half goes to Chiefs, the second half will go to Pirates.
“It’s a huge thing walking out in front of that crowd. There are a lot of people watching you and wishing the best for you.
“And when you don’t play well you disappoint 91,000 people in the stands and the other about two million watching on TV.
“It’s a very difficult one. Maybe you’re going to disappoint your child or your family as well.
“In the tunnel you’re starting to feel excited, to be scared. But you have to enjoy it. Once the whistle goes you enjoy the football.”