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For many, Orlando Prates versus Kaizer Chiefs is more than just a game. For 90 minutes families are divided, friendships strained and marriages put on pause. This is the power of the Soweto Derby– South Africa’s grandest sporting event.
It will be no different this Saturday; as the gods intended when the game was first conceived in 1970, a lot rides on the encounter.
The fact that the fixture was sold out last Thursday is a measure of its importance and anticipation. Come kick-off, Soccer City will be filled to its 90,000 brim, the noise deafening. There are several of reasons for this, the biggest being that, for the first time in eight years, the Premiership race looks like a two horse race between the Chiefs and the Pirates. As such, Saturday’s clash has been transported to the times of Doctor Khumalo and Teboho Moloi– Jomo Sono and Ace Ntsoelengoe before that– when its outcome defined lives.
Saturday’s installment is arguably more important for the Chiefs. Though they haven’t played badly, Amakhosi are suddenly only three points ahead of the Pirates, having at one stage led the Buccaneers by eight. This only goes to illustrate the recent ability of the Ghost to slip into their opposition’s slipstream, something that will undoubtedly haunt Amakhosi fans until the fat lady sings. The Pirates have forged a reputation as comeback kings over the past two seasons and will remain confident of clawing their way back even if the unthinkable happens at Soccer City.
As is, the sides go into the game with nearly identical records, head and shoulders above the rest. The Chiefs are top with 30 points, three ahead of the Bucs. The Chiefs are the goal kings with 27, and the Pirates the best defense with just seven conceded.
As with any derby there are countless pre-game questions: Which eleven will Roger De Sa pick? Will the Chiefs stay true to their recent attack instincts?
De Sa’s selection will be interesting, as he clearly still has to find his best line-up. Things have no doubt been muddled further by Wednesday’s Chippa performance, and with the Pirates having played a day later than the Chiefs in the week, De Sa may be set to tinker once more.
The Chiefs’ rise this season, on the other hand, has been based predominantly on a slick offense. After a dreadful start, a 4-1 mauling by Sundowns in the MTN8, Stuart Baxter has built a side primed in attack: 27 goals in 13 league games have come, with Bernard Parker, Lehlohonolo Majoro and Kingston Nkhatha providing a sharp spearhead.
All the same, any overly attacking approach on Saturday could leave the Chiefs exposed to a Pirates team deadly in transition. It won’t escape both coaches’ minds that recent meetings have been swayed down the flanks, Tlou Segolela being the main protagonist. With the Chiefs’ Bafana fullbacks Siboniso Gaxa and Tshepo Masilela still finding their feet after injuries, any unchecked exposure could tip the balance.
As the Bucs’ boss De Sa says, “For the first time in a while both teams are evenly matched.” It’s difficult to argue and so even the smallest of details come into play as well.
The Chiefs will be playing an afternoon league match for only the third time this season, having performed poorly in their previous two – a labored draw with Free State Stars in Bethlehem in September and losing their unbeaten record to Platinum Stars in Rustenburg a fortnight ago. Could this be a factor on Saturday?
The state of the pitch after a Lady Gaga concert last weekend may also throw up curve-balls to the extent to which game-plans may have to be adjusted. Who will adjust best?
Perhaps the only certainty is the importance of midfield battle– the impressive Chiefs duo of Willard Katsande and Reneilwe Letsholonyane against a Pirates core is likely to welcome back Andile Jali.
Both midfields will be tasked with providing their teams with the rhythm and balance so crucial on such occasions. With so much on the line memories naturally wonder to glorious encounters of yesteryear – the Pirates’ 4-1 win in 1996 marked by Jerry Sikhosana’s ferocious hattrick, the tension-filled 1988 Bob Save Superbowl final, the Chiefs’ thrilling 3-2 extra-time victory in the 1992 Coca-Cola Cup, or the 2001 Lesley Manyathela show when Slow Poison inspired Pirates to a stunning 3-0 league win.
And that’s another reason why tomorrow’s match is significant.
In some ways the Soweto Derby has been diluted from its fierce origins thanks in part to a deluge of commercially-driven friendly meetings such as the Vodacom Challenge and the Carling Black Label Cup more recently. Familiarity has bred tolerance.
The respective teams’ decline in terms of true star power, coinciding with Tshwane sides Mamelodi Sundowns and SuperSport United winning the league from 2005 to 2010 also had an effect. This resulted in derbies that not only didn’t have any bearing on the title race but, even worse, at times lacked the quality the occasion demands.
Though there has been a renaissance in the past 18 months, Saturday’s derby could really bring the sexy back. As it happens, the game will coincide with SuperSport supplying a feed to American broadcaster ESPN reaching 19 countries on four continents.
Final word goes to Baxter: “This is a big match and we have to make it an event that can trumpet South African football to the outside world.”
So there you go, Saturday’s Soweto Derby is the biggest in a while. Let game begin, and let another glorious chapter be written in the storied history of this timeless rivalry.
Image Courtesy : Orlando pirates fc. [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons