Thirty years after being too young for the crowds at a Swallows v Bucs final, the stands have run empty

2010-12-04 00:00

SOME people say they remember where they were when U.S. president John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when Nelson Mandela was released from jail.

I vividly remember where I was on that afternoon in late November when Moroka Swallows took on Orlando Pirates for the honour of being Mainstay Cup champions of 1980. We were at my friend Sammy’s house.

The older boys, including Sammy’s brother Kgosi, had gone to Orlando Stadium for the epic battle and they had decreed that at eight years old, we would be too young and too small to withstand the expected crowd. And so it was to the radio we resorted.

We had to listen carefully because we would have to debate the merits of the systems and players used. We had to agree or disagree about who had been the better player of the day. We had to see the match through the commentator’s eye because in those days the SABC/SAUK could not give a damn about what it saw as a sport of blacks and gays.

Thirty years on, I took my own family to watch the MTN 8 final, the first between these two great clubs since the one I had followed on radio. I took my seven-year-old daughter without the concerns that the older boys in our neighbourhood had. That is a reflection of how Swallows have fallen over the years.

New Swallows coach Gordon Igesund has a big job on his hands. It is not only about ensuring that Swallows escape the relegation zone where they hover winless after nine rounds, but also about restoring the dignity of a one-time football aristocracy.

As someone who grew up in a household where things were seen in black and white, I was happy with the outcome of the MTN final. But I was saddened that the once Beautiful Birds had degenerated into such an ordinary club that the only surprise about the result was that it had to go penalties.

Swallows are not just about their fans. They are an important fabric in the local football tapestry. Moroka Swallows had always been the team I wish I had supported. Many of those who made up the first 11 line-up that took the field against Pirates 30 were my heroes, despite their wrong colours.

I joined naturally in the cries of “Uyindoda Phil Venter” when the Moroka Swallows right-back marked our Amos “Heel Extension” Mkhari. I cheered with Swallows fans when “Skepe Mketuli” — Moses Khanyeza in Home Affairs department records — thwarted another attempt by Jomo Sono to score.

The Swallows I had grown up watching was made up of ball players from the right-back to the number 11. It will be a stretch to compare them to the majestic Barcelona team, but I hope you catch my drift.

The names of Daniel “Vader” Mophosho and Andries “Panyaza” Maseko are as important to South African folklore as their forebears such as Difference “City Council” Mbanya, Ace Guinea and Carlton “Carlypage” Moloi who transformed a ragtag team in maroon and white from the shanty town of Masakeng, Soweto, into a national football institution.

Such was their dominance that nobody batted an eyelid when David “Pine” Chabeli brought Thomas Hlongwane from Arcadia to Orlando stadium, where the fans baptised him “Who’s Fooling Who”, and who repaid every cent plus interest of the R22 000 Swallows had broken the bank and records to pay.

Though the records will show that it was Ace Mnini who scored that memorable goal from the most acute of angles when Swallows beat Witbank Black Aces (as they then were) to win the Mainstay Cup, it was “Who’s” wizardry that created what culminated into that goal.

It was “Who” who scored the goal that laid to settle the debate as to whether the yellow bag in the AmaZulu goal carried only the goalkeeper’s gloves or something more that made a dominant Swallows mysteriously fail to convert their chances.

That is why Igesund must be careful whom he allows to wear jerseys number 9 and 11 (Hlongwane and Mnini’s respectively), which along with the number 13 worn by Samuel “Happy Cow” Mnkomo ●— The Mechanic — are regarded as sacred garments by the Birds faithful. Igesund will need more than his impressive coaching resumé to succeed restore the Birds to their former glory.

He will need the audacity that brought a sharpshooter like Noel Cousins to the club and the eye that would spot a young Andries Mpondo who went on to fill in the gap left by the elegant Fetsi “Chippa” Molatedi when he abandoned Moroka Swallows for Kaizer Chiefs for the then record transfer fee of R45 000.

Swallows fans, and all those who appreciate what a functional Swallows means for the local game, will pray that Igesund succeeds. Speaking of praying, Swallows fans now have more reason to sing one of their favourite match songs – Joale Ke Nako Ya Ho Rapela (It is time time for prayer. Lord help us all).

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