Friday, March 8, 2013

Soweto Derby Day

Tomorrow is the 148th edition of the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. This is the biggest fixture in South African football, and probably SA sport in general (sorry, rugby fans). With over 94,700 seats, FNB Stadium has been sold out for days. There has been a great rivalry between the two sides since Chiefs emerged from a split with Pirates in 1970. This game is even more significant given that Chiefs are top of the league, five points clear of second-place Pirates who have a game in hand.

The problem is that, come Saturday afternoon, there'll be many of the Amakhosi (Chiefs) and Buccaneers faithful desperate to get tickets. Despite many fans buying their tickets ahead of the game, the culture of last-minute ticket buying still remains. The PSL have stated that "The law will descend heavily on unruly and violent supporters". If the police perimeters do their job and prevent ticketless fans from entering the stadium precinct, problems will be minimised. If. There'll be some disappointed, and possibly disgruntled, fans who won't be able to get in.

This fixture has had a problematic history. The 1991 Orkney and 2001 Ellis Park Stadium disasters saw 42 and 43 people die respectively at games between the two sides. My own PhD research uncovered oral histories recalling violence and crime at these matches in the 1970s, with fans getting beaten up and mugged. Yet something has dramatically changed in recent years. In today's Star newspaper in Johannesburg, an article neatly sums it up calling it the Friendly Rivalry. Fans on both side will travel together in minibus taxis to the game and sit in the same stands. In my experience at these derby matches, I've never witnessed any problems other than some slightly beer-fuelled aggro, which has been quickly snuffed out by surrounding fans. Can you imagine Manchester United fans sitting side by side with Liverpool fans? I didn't think so.

Much has been made of the increasing global reach of this fixture. While Supersport uses its platform to broadcast across Africa, Al-Jazeera is doing the same across the Middle East and North Africa, while ESPN will be showing it in the UK and Ireland. For those watching overseas, you may get the impression that SA football is one big vibrant carnival. The problem is that you'd be wrong. Outside of the Soweto Derby, attendances are dwindling and at times miniscule. Soccer Laduma recently ran an editorial that reflected on poor attendances across the Premier Soccer League. If the figures quoted here are at the very least roughly accurate, a 6,000 PSL crowd average suggests some major structural flaw in the domestic game. The article is right to suggest that the derby is little more than a sticking plaster for the deep, underlying illness that plagues the PSL.

Still, if you get the opportunity to watch the game, wherever you are, and you can get through the drone of vuvuzelas through the television, you may get an inkling of the electric atmosphere. Having been to both the Manchester and Soweto derbies, I'll conclude with the following: the football is better in Manchester but the atmosphere is better in Soweto!

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