Soccer City’s big kick-off

2010-05-22 00:00

WITS University attract about 2 000 regular fans to their home ground at Milpark on the Wits University campus, while AmaZulu averaged 6 000 at Princess Magogo Stadium in KwaMashu before it was closed for renovations as a training ground for the World Cup.

Today a crowd of close to 80 000 will watch the teams contest the Nedbank Cup final in the opening match of the 95 000-seater World Cup final venue, Soccer City. Something tells me the vast majority might be neutrals.

Johannesburgers will come today to get a first look at their newly revamped stadium. And they’re going to be blown away.

Not as pretty as the aesthetically pleasing Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, Soccer City is nonetheless simply awe-inspiring. Like the city it inhabits — with its mine dumps and slums, skyscrapers and imposing 1960s architecture, apartheid-era government buildings — the calabash design of the stadium has its own beauty, warts and all.

This is a stadium worthy of a World Cup final. It is set to become Africa’s first international icon ground, like Wembley, the San Siro, the Azteca and the Maracana.

And the stadium has a history, too. It was the first true soccer stadium to be built in the late 1980s. Nelson Mandela’s first mass rally was held there after his release, as was the memorial for the slain Chris Hani, complete with helicopters and gunshots ringing outside the gates.

Bafana Bafana won the 1996 African Cup of Nations at Soccer City and qualified for their first World Cup with Phil Masinga’s epic long-range goal in front of crowds of 90 000-plus. Remarkably, an all-day pre-season Charity Spectacular tournament once held an official crowd of 138 000 in the then 78 000-seater.

The presence of Bafana Bafana less than three weeks before their opening game of the World Cup against Mexico at the same venue will lift the roof.

All this aside, there is also the small matter of a cup final to be contested.

For AmaZulu, reaching two semi-finals and a cup final this season marks their turnaround from the late 1990s and early 2000s, where the club was poorly administered and relegated to the First Division.

Usuthu would dearly love to lift their first trophy since a famous 3-1 victory over Kaizer Chiefs — at Soccer City — 18 years ago in the Coca-Cola Cup final.

The Durban team have advanced drama­tically, scoring last-minute goals, playing with 10 men in three of four games, and winning a penalty shoot-out in the semi-final against Mamelodi Sundowns.

Coach Neil Tovey has said his team need to show greater discipline, which they haven’t. But — in the character of their coach, the 1996 Nations Cup-winning captain — they have made up for that with grit and determination.

“I think we’ve got a passionate team and things like that are going to happen with the cards. But a nice pattern has emerged where it’s gone from 45 minutes to 30 minutes down to 15 minutes with 10 men, and hopefully now down to seven minutes,” Tovey joked.

“It’s been tough because we’ve played against PSL teams all the way except against Tuks [Pretoria University], and we know from past history how tough they can be.

“We’ve got through a lot of games from a goal down. The mentality’s good in our team, and over the last half of the PSL season, we’ve had a really good run and we’re looking to continue with that.”

For Tovey, the cup final will mark a return to the ground where he lifted the Nations Cup trophy, and more than a few as a long-serving captain of Chiefs.

“Obviously as a coach you get judged by how many trophies you win. But it’s not all about Neil Tovey, it’s about the club,” he said.

The red cards have taken their toll on AmaZulu and they have three players suspended.

“We’ve got three suspensions in Thabo Mabaso, Warren Bishop and Mark van Heerden,” Tovey said. “But it gives an opportunity like it did in the semi-finals for players to come forward and make a name for themselves. We’ve got depth in our team at last, and, whoever comes in, I’m sure will do a good job.”

AmaZulu’s danger man is Ayanda Dlamini, the forceful striker who has scored 10 goals in his first Premier Soccer League season.

Wits are a well organised outfit under Roger De Sa, with dangerous attackers in Marawaan Bantam and Mark Haskins.

The contestants might not be the most fashionable, but the football should be engrossing enough to befit the occasion.

Kickoff: 3 pm — live on SABC1, SuperSport 4 and SuperSport HD.

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