CAPE TOWN - A confidence trick or scam is an attempt to defraud a person or group. In Saturday’s goalless Soweto derby, Orlando Pirates’ Ghanaian attacker Bernard Morrison tried a version of this when putting the ball into the Kaizer Chiefs net with his own hand, hoping to fool the match officials, like Diego Maradona did in the 1986 World Cup.
Unfortunately, Morrison’s deception was too blatant and easily picked up. In the aftermath, though, he kept pointing to his head, insisting that he had “headed” the ball into the net. Con man, indeed.
The point in illustrating this incident from the biggest fixture in the PSL is that it serves as a metaphor for the Soweto derby itself. It’s all just one big confidence trick, and superb sleight of hand. The game is hyped to the hilt - but, in truth, the on-field action continues to pale in comparison. The game still attract thousands - there were 70 000 at the FNB Stadium on Saturday - and the teams’ fanatical followers continue to create a buzz and atmosphere like no other. As my colleague at the Star, Njabulo Ngidi, tweeted: “Every negative sentiment you have about the Soweto derby changes when you’re at the stadium. There’s no match like it.” Agreed.
But the football itself just doesn’t do the occasion justice. Compared to the pulsating derbies I’ve seen down the years, I cannot help but feel cheated - and I’m sure there are many Chiefs and Pirates fans who feel the same. Like Morrison’s attempt to con the match officials, so, too, the Soweto derby continues to hoodwink us. In short, it’s the biggest con game around. And it’ll only change when the on-field action produces the same unabashed passion and fully engaged appeal and excitement to rival that on the terraces.
Forgive me my scepticism, but I come from an era when the Soweto derby was an entertaining spectacle, when there were footballers of charisma and personality, and when the game was played with desire, purpose and passion. The history is very well-known, of course: In how Chiefs was established by former Pirates star Kaizer Motaung in 1970 after a dispute involving some of his former teammates at the Buccaneers - and how the rivalry and classic games between the two clubs would enthral people during the dark days of apartheid.
As such, the derby’s position in South Africa’s history is firmly cemented. Back when this was a divided country, when the state’s brutal and oppressive machinations allowed for little to live for, Chiefs and Pirates offered this nation’s majority a solace from the nightmare. With nowhere to go and nothing to aim for, football offered brief comfort with the glorious entertainment the derby provided.
It is, based on this history, that Chiefs and Pirates have built up the phenomenal following they still enjoy today. Tradition has been handed down from generation to generation and, that is why the vibe, the cult of the Soweto derby is as strong as ever. But is the quality of the football the same?
I remember the greats: Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, Abednigo ‘Shaka’ Ngcobo, Nelson ‘Teenage’ Dladla, Ryder Mofokeng, Petros ‘Ten-Ten’ Nzimande, Vusi ‘Computer’ Lamola, Michael ‘Bizzah’ Dlamini and many more. I remember, after the unification of football in the early 1990s, when playing for Santos, we came up against Chiefs at Athlone. The stadium was packed to capacity, the atmosphere electric and, when the Amakhosi players walked out on to the field for their warm-up, you could sense the charisma, almost touch the special aura of the players. We led 1-0 at half-time (I scored, by the way) and they blew us away in the second half to win 3-1, with Doctor Khumalo and Donald “Ace” Khuse at their very best.
Subsequently, I’ve had occasion to play against Chiefs and Pirates on quite a few occasions, I’ve been in the stands as a spectator and I’ve covered quite a few derbies as a football journalist. Yes, football has changed, it’s more of a tactical chess game in this modern, risk-free era of the sport, but what I find most disappointing in recent encounters is the pedestrian, soporific nature of the action. There is little passion, and the intensity way below what it should be; there is way too much sideways passing and little penetration; there is a little innovation and certainly no craving for the bragging rights on offer.
It is often said that the country’s biggest game is a microcosm of the general state of its football. If that is so, then what does it say about our football?