Derby has lost its lustre

2010-02-20 00:00

IT’S A sad day when the Soweto Derby, a match that has been played in front of crowds in excess of 100 000, takes place in front of a paltry 34 000 fans. The Derby is the highlight of the South African domestic soccer calendar, the jewel in the Premier Soccer League’s crown, the Blue Bulls vs Western Province of soccer and the pride of South Africa’s football establishment … for now.

This afternoon the Derby, the biggest match in South African football since Kaizer Motaung led a breakaway of players from Pirates to form Chiefs in 1970, will be played in front of one of the smallest crowds it has seen since those formative years. This in the year of Chiefs’ 40th anniversary.

The main reason is that the Premier Soccer League has decided to sell 10 000 less tickets than the capacity at Orlando Stadium for safety reasons.

The new Orlando Stadium is a beautiful football venue. A compact, modern, comfortable 44 000-seater which has landed within sight of Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both lived, like a spaceship sent from some corner of north England, Scotland, Belgium, or Albania.

As the spiritual home of the Derby, it is a deserving venue of this afternoon’s game. But a sterile crowd of 34 000, hijacked by the sponsors to all have the same-coloured vuvuzelas, is hardly deserving of the grainy images of the great derbies held at Orlando, the ones where you see footage of fans sitting on the light pylons and roofs, the field or any other tiny space they could squeeze into.

Orlando is not quite Soccer City, and certainly the first derby to be held at the 90 000-seat calabash is a treat to look forward to. But the stadium is big enough, when filled to capacity, to make for more than enough of a spectacle to suit the Derby. That’s why the PSL’s continued decision to reduce the number of tickets sold for big games to 10 000 less than capacity is a frustrating one.

Why build 60 000-seater stadiums to just use 50 000 of those seats? A 60 000-seater is supposed to be a 60 000-seater — with 60 000 fans sitting in it.

A lot of money (R2,1 billion in the past three years) has been poured into the PSL. Then there are the sizeable deals that have been netted for Pirates and Chiefs from those very sponsors handing out vuvuzelas to the fans as they enter the stadium, to add an irritating blue marketing tint to South Africa’s most colourful sporting spectacle.

Bearing all this in mind, surely the authorities in charge of the Derby can afford to have enough security on hand to be able to fill the stadium. It’s a simple equation: the more security you have, the bigger the crowds you can manage. Selling less tickets seems an apathetic option.

But the Derby has not only lost some of its lustre because of the size of this afternoon’s crowd. Chiefs last won a league title in 2005, which, considering it was a second successive title, is not too bad. For Pirates, the situation is much worse — the Buccaneers were last crowned league champions in 2001.

Neither side’s record in the PSL era, which began in 1996, is overly impressive. Pirates have just that one title, and Chiefs, well, just those two.

More alarming for the country’s two biggest teams, though, has been that in recent seasons they have looked a stride behind some so-called smaller-name clubs in the era of previously unheard of riches for the PSL. SuperSport United, especially, have set the pace, with their back-to-back league titles, with a third one seemingly on its way.

It has not been Gavin Hunt’s coaching and SuperSport’s financial backing alone that have won the Pretoria club league titles. It’s that SuperSport, more than any other club, cover all their bases in their professional approach. They are the best-organised club on and off the field. And they have one of the best youth systems.

Ajax Cape Town have a similar approach, and the best development programme in the country. While this has not yielded league titles yet, there have been a few cups.

It’s a tougher league now because there has been a general improvement in professionalism across the board in the PSL, from the small clubs to the bigger ones. Maritzburg United’s sold-out match against Pirates at Harry Gwala Stadium on Wednesday night, their 2-1 victory and the home team’s supporters perhaps shading Bucs’ in number are an illustration of this.

SuperSport keep winning because, besides their financial muscle, players and coaches, they do everything that bit better than everyone else off the field too.

Mamelodi Sundowns are challenging SuperSport this season, mainly due to Patrice Motsepe’s billions and their ability to buy the best players in the country, most recently Franklin Cale. But if Downs had the same sort of organisation off the field as their Pretoria neighbours, they would be unstoppable.

Chiefs have their village at Naturena, but something must be wrong with Amakhosi’s development system because not enough talent has come through in recent years.

Mostly, though, Chiefs and Pirates have much catching up to do with their off-field organisation if they are to keep up with developments and achieve results that befit their stature — and continue being the Barcelona and Real Madrid of South African football.

If they don’t, then someday a Bloem Celtic-SuperSport football game might be the focus of a new derby.

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