JOHANNESBURG – Innocent Maela personifies the Soweto Derby’s biggest drawcard, dividing families in terms of allegiances but uniting them during the spectacle as Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs fans sit together at the stadium in peace.
The 25-year-old Pirates left back spent this week not talking to his brother, Chiefs’ left back Tsepo Masilela, leading up to this afternoon’s clash at FNB Stadium.
Masilela’s injury denied the siblings the opportunity to come up against each in the first round and will continue to do so today. But even if they faced each other, luckily their father Eric Maela would escape having to choose which son to support since he can claim neutrality as a Sundowns fan.
A draw would be good for the Brazilians as the winner would be on their heels in the Premiership race nearing the end.
Maela is puzzled as to why his family produces left-backs. His father also played in that position for Black Aces.
“It just happened that we all played at left-back. It’s not like we sat down and talked about it,” Maela said.
The Pirates academy development product never saw his father play. He did, however, see Masilela strut his stuff and has revealed that he looked up to him growing up. But his father is the one who planted the football seed.
“He (my father) played a big role in my growth as a footballer,” Maela said.
“He has always supported me and was always buying me proper boots.
“There was a time in my career I enrolled to study at a university and they accepted me. Afterwards I told my dad that this isn’t for me, I want to go and play football. He said, ‘but I have already paid your school fees’. But I said, ‘dad, come on’ and he said it’s fine, you can do what you love as long as you’re happy. He is proud that I have made it here, especially the fact that his other son Tsepo played in big matches. He is a proud dad.”
The change of guard at Pirates benefited Maela, who was on loan at the now defunct Thanda Royal Zulu last season. He captained Thanda in their march to winning the National First Division to gain promotion to the elite league before selling the status to AmaZulu.
Everyone started on a clean slate when coach Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic and his assistant Rhulani Mokwena arrived last year, just after Maela returned from his loan stint.
The Buccaneers’ immediate challenge was to plug the holes in a defence that conceded 40 goals in last season’s disastrous campaign. Maela ran away with the opportunity he was given, collecting the Man of the Match award in his debut against Chippa United.
“I had to have a positive mentality because that will help you not only in football but also in life. The transition from PSL to NFD wasn’t easy but we have people who support us and who believe in us here. That gave me a lot of confidence.
“You even forget that last season you were playing in the first division because of how much faith showed, which in turns makes you a confident player. When you go onto the field you have no doubt and no fear, you just go out there to do your best.”
If Maela and all the players that will be involved in the Derby approach it with no doubts and no fear, they would produce a spectacle that will give those who will fill FNB Stadium value for their money.
“When you grow up as a kid, you want to play in big matches,” Maela said. “The Derby is one of the biggest matches in the continent.
“The atmosphere is always brilliant. The pressure is too high but as a player those are the kind of games that you want to test yourself in. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to play in my second.
“I know it’s going to be a good game with a lot of details put in the planning because we know how they play and they know how we play.”