Disappointing Soweto Derby fails to mask South African football’s problems

Soweto Derby 2013

by Marc Fletcher

The 148th edition of the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates came and went without a goal.

It could have been worse.

Both Itemelung Khune and Senzo Meyiwa pulled off some fine saves to keep their respective sides in the game and Meyiwa deserved his man-of-the-match award.

What was worrying was the predictable profligacy in front of goal. If this is the best of what South Africa has to offer, you have to wonder where Bafana Bafana are going to get the goals needed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

In Monday’s Sowetan and The Star, the press voiced concerns over how this game will damage the global profile of South African soccer.

In the build-up to this famous Soweto derby, much was made about how the derby game was being broadcast across the world. Supersport was broadcasting it across sub-Saharan Africa, Al-Jazeera had the rights to broadcast it in the Middle East and North Africa, while ESPN UK were showing the game live for the first time in the UK and Ireland.

What international viewers would have seen was an error-strewn encounter that lacked rhythm and purpose. Some dodgy refereeing decisions didn’t help. Siphiwe Tshabalala’s second-half tackle on Tlao Segolela in the Chiefs’ area was clearly a penalty. That may have given the game the kickstart it desperately needed but it was not to be.

Whether this game has successfully promoted the South African game across the world remains to be seen but global broadcasters will surely be thinking twice before paying for the rights to show the next derby.

Derby day atmosphere

What television viewers missed out on was the vibrant atmosphere that derby day generates, much better than the game itself.

Fans dressed in a variety of costumes, blowing vuvuzelas and dancing in the stands were already in a state of frenzy when the game started.

With the majority of the capacity crowd wearing the black and gold of Chiefs, every time Chiefs surged forward, FNB Stadium roared into life but both sets of supporters became increasingly frustrated as time was running out. The anticipation of the fans petered out into disappointment and possibly even boredom.

Both Stuart Baxter and Roger de Sa, the respective coaches of Chiefs and Pirates, blamed the poor performance on the hype surrounding the derby and the nervousness generated from this.

As with every Soweto Derby, expectations had been intensely built-up since the beginning of the year. Adverts from Vodacom, the sponsor of both teams, pitched Chiefs fans against Pirates supporters, each commercial telling the other to beware.

But South African football isn’t just this one fixture. Those who watched the game around the world would be forgiven if they thought that all South African matches were like this. Yet, no other fixtures come close in terms of attendance.

Nationally, most either support Chiefs or Pirates, while a few will claim Mamelodi Sundowns or Bloemfontein Celtic as their first team.

On Sunday, the Tshwane Derby between Sundowns and Supersport United was played out in front of swathes of empty seats. These empty seats have become the norm in most soccer games in the country.

A combination of poor performances, easy access to televised football and the cost of the matchday experience prevent attendances from growing, while there seems little political will on behalf of the league and clubs to rectify this.

As this article from Soccer Laduma argues, it is clear that the Soweto Derby hides major structural deficiencies in the nation’s game.

Marc Fletcher is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. Check out his blog or find him on Twitter @MarcFletcher1.

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