Cape Town — South Africa's premier showpiece encounter between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs ranks alongside the world's iconic football derbies which fuelled cross-town rivalries from one generation to generation to the next.
Some of the greatest derbies such as Celtic vs Rangers (Glasgow, Scotland), Boca Juniors vs River Plate (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Al-Ahly vs Zamalek (Cairo, Egypt), Liverpool vs Manchester United (England) and Barcelona vs Real Madrid (Spain) spring to mind and are followed worldwide.
The Pirates — Chiefs showdown was first played in Soweto in January 1970, when the teams featured in a curtain-raiser. The occasion was the Rogue Beer Cup third-fourth play-off which Pirates won 6-4.
No one would have foreseen that these two teams in the curtain-raiser would grow in stature to the extent that over the next decade, they would attract fans from far and near. Past players recall that from the mid-70s onwards, hundreds streamed across South Africa's borders from neighbouring countries to watch the Soweto Derby.
The 1970 Rogue Beer Cup was played between Moroka Swallows and Pimville United Brothers (PUBS). These were two football giants in Soweto, the abbreviation for South Western Townships, which came into being in the 1930s.
Before 1970, these two teams ruled the roost in Soweto until the late 1960s when Orlando Pirates shot into prominence after it had attracted the finest players. One of the players there at the time was Kaizer Motaung, one of the finest in the country at the time.
In 1969, Motaung tried to settle a dispute in the club after Pirates punished players for playing in a match without permission. When his efforts came to nought he resigned from the club and started a club, which initially became known as Kaizer XI.
The following year Kaizer XI became Kaizer Chiefs when the club’s structures were formalised. Motaung appointed Thomas 'Zero' Johnson as the coach and the fast-talking Ewert Nene‚ was the manager.
The Chiefs team at the time included Henry Padi, Jacob Masike, Edward Khoza, Eliakim Khumalo, Ariel Kgongoane, ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe, Motaung, Ingle Singh, Alfred Chamane and Stanley ‘Screamer’ Tshabalala. Chamane was credited with scoring Chiefs’ first ever goal (in the Rogue Beer Cup quarterfinal).
Over time, the Soweto Derby became one of the most fiercely contested football matches on the continent. Perhaps not as fierce as the Egyptian Derby (Al Ahly — Zamalek) which on occasions led to so much violence among fans in the past that games had to be played behind closed doors.
It never happened In South Africa but there was one instance where the tension between the two rivals led to the death of Nene, six years after Chiefs were founded. Nene went to sign up the young PUBS sensation Nelson 'Teenage' Dladla and he was killed. The killer had strong PUBS links and wanted to halt the move to Chiefs, which happened anyway. Dladla went on to play 408 games for Chiefs and retired in 1988.
On the other side of town, Pirates bounced back after the breakaway with players who did the club proud in years to come. Some of the names include are Bernard Hartze and Jomo Sono who started in the early 70s before leaving to play in America. He rejoined the club in 1980.
Other Pirates players became household names in the country. These include Patson Banda, Johannes ‘Yster' Khomane, Oscar 'Jazman' Dlamini, Shakes Mashaba and Percy Moloi, who many believe was Pirates’ best player in the 70s.
Lucky Stylianou, the first white player to join Chiefs in the mid-70s, and Howard Freeze, the talismanic skipper of the 80s, were recently invited by Chiefs. media to take a trip down memory lane.
"There was a time when playing in a Soweto Derby was too much for players," said Stylianou. "Players from both teams had sleepless nights. The biggest fear was that they would make a mistake and incur the wrath of fans - they would be crucified by supporters.
"The fear was real and some players who could not handle it disappeared altogether.
"There was no need to motivate players because they all looked forward to the derby.
"On derby day you make up thinking did I sleep enough, and will I have a bit of luck today.
"I played opposite Jomo Somo, and in one derby against him a fight broke out and the referee had to separate us."
Freeze said the fans looked forward to the derby and most came from the same city.
"There was always the tension, which would be the best team," said Freeze. "People used to come from all over — Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, just for 90 minutes.
"You can just imagine travelling by train or taxi or hitchhike for 10 hours just to watch a match for 90 minutes.
"As players, we could never sleep before a derby."
During the 70s and 80s Chiefs only just shaded Pirates in the league competition which was staged under the auspices of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL).
It was a different story in the cup competitions, which Chiefs dominated, and earned them the title of the “Cup Kings of South Africa”.