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Will the Derby fire burn again?

Posted: 25 August 2009 Time: 16:24

Moroka Swallows clash against Orlando Pirates at the newly-refurbished Dobsonville Stadium on Wednesday got me drifting down Memory Lane, thinking about this, the original Soweto Derby, and wondering why the hype around what was once known as the Mother of All Matches has lost its fire over the years.

Having attended my first Soweto Derby some 40 years ago, I began delving into the roots of not only the Bucs-Birds rivalry, but other celebrated derbies around the world, in an effort to unravel this mystery.   History shows that Orlando East’s Boys Club had already been up and carving their name as Pirates with pride for 10 years before a group of youngsters and their parents were forcibly shifted from Alexandra and relocated to Moroka Jabavu back in the early 1940s.   With an established reputation, a clubhouse, under a patron and with badges on their kit, Pirates may have been viewed as the ‘rich’ during those early years, particularly by the new boys on the block, who had spent their youth growing up in the hessian covered shacks in the James ‘Sofasonke’ Mpanza’s squatter camp at Moroka Jabavu.   Surfing the net I came across a blog by US writer Jessica Spiegel, who has attended derbies around the world. She highlights the fact that it is not only the teams or the fans that make derbies special, but that there are often other factors involved, particularly when there are socio-economic differences.   Spiegel notes that Argentina’s Boca Juniors vs River Plate is probably the biggest derby in the world because it is not only a football match between the country’s two most popular clubs, but a clash between teams from two different backgrounds – the rich (River) and the poor (Boca).   It is more than a game; for the people of Argentina, belonging to Boca or River is a way of life, whether you’re rich or poor it doesn’t matter.   On match-day the entire nation is at a standstill – just like it was in Soweto back in the day – anticipating the outcome of the game. Players always fight until the death, even if at times this means resorting to violence on the pitch as well.   The day after the derby, players from the winning side are treated like national heroes, while those from the losing side have often confessed to be afraid to walk on the street because of possible abuse from their demanding fans.   Her research shows similar factors in Turkey with the Galatasaray-Fenerbahce derby and its Greek counterpart involving Panathinaikos and Olympiacos.   Times and conditions in Soweto changed considerably after those early beginnings, but it still took a further 10 years before the Moroka youngsters were in a position to begin challenging the mighty Sea Robbers for bragging rights in the townships.   The growing rivalry between Bucs and Birds was first highlighted in 1954 when Swallows (then known as Corrugated Rovers) shocked Pirates with a 3-2 victory to win the Transvaal Challenge Cup final.   Matters were aggravated a year later when Bucs failed to turn up at Wattville Stadium to meet Birds in the Challenge Cup final yet again.   This match was a milestone in the original Derby encounters as it marked the first really violent confrontation between the two clubs, with angry fans storming the ticket office. In the next few years tension between the two clubs increased significantly as they grabbed virtually every prize on offer in the province.   Violence at the Soweto derbies was also the root cause of one of the many major splits in the ranks of Swallows.   Birds had refused to meet Bucs in ’63 because they said the Johannesburg Bantu FA could not protect their players from the hooligans at Pirates at the Orlando Stadium. Swallows officials also did not accept an assurance from the Orlando club that they would not be harmed and as a result the JBFA fined Swallows R500.   Birds’ players became incensed with their officials stand and 15 of their players quit the Nest to form their own club, Big XV, the forerunner of today’s Dube Birds.   Swallows’ support has dwindled with subsequent splits and takeovers by various factions and they have only in recent years begun to hold their heads high again under Leon Prins and VW sponsorship.   Pirates, on the other hand, have increased their fan base, especially under the guidance of Irvin Khoza.    I hope I am not wrong when I predict a bumper opening for the R87-million revamped Dobsonville venue on Wednesday.   With big-time soccer returning to the townships, Birds fans will be coming out of the woodwork to prove that Swallows can still fly high.   Supporters of these two clubs may not be separated so much by economics anymore, but they’re will be fighting to defend their turf because both call Soweto home.

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