Hiding in plain sight amid the elation of a crucial Soweto Derby victory was a sentiment almost as strong: vindication.
Kaizer Chiefs may have entered an overcast FNB Stadium as log leaders but it was they who carried a country’s doubts and questions. The narrative was as easy for us to write as it was banal: the club were buckling under the pressure at the top, letting their lead – which not long ago stood at 10 points – quickly slip through their increasingly shaky fingers. Orlando Pirates had concurrently set themselves up as surprise insurgents in the PSL race; this was to be the day they stormed the capital and assumed power. Instead, the Buccaneers were rebuffed, handed their first defeat under their new boss and all but eliminated from title contention.
On this day, in a calabash swirling with untold pressure, only a team truly worthy of being called champions was going to leave victorious. That was the Amakhosi.
In the week preceding the game, managing director of Stadium Management SA, Bertie Grobbelaar, said during a safety briefing that he had visited the FNB Stadium earlier and even then the sense of anticipation in the air was as thick as a rainy day on Table Mountain. For this reason, he and his fellow officials practically sunk to their knees and begged fans to arrive early to avoid congestion and limit the inherent crowd risks of such an occasion. They even offered the allure of live performances and entertainment. The advice went largely unheaded.
With an hour to go, empty yellow seats were still in the majority and the street parties raged. Long before kick-off, the roads leading into the precinct had turned into stationary, bumper-to-bumper traffic. With flags and team jerseys hanging out of every second vehicle, there was no mistaking that everyone there was content to endure the wait. Excited passengers quickly spilled out of minibus taxis, understandably unable to remain still. Some set off on the 30 to 40 minute walk to the ground, but most remained content to sing, dance and drink in the road. Two men in nappies and boxing gloves offered extended entertainment by throwing sloppy punches at each other.
That already dense air of anticipation became even thicker as a storm quite literally brewed and moods turned even jollier.
Fortunately for those of a Chiefs persuasion, who vastly outnumbered their counterparts, a fresh breath awaited 30 minutes after the referee’s first whistle. Lebogang Manyama’s deadly bullet not only stunned Pirates, but left them reeling for much of the game.
Coach Ernst Middendorp looked uncharacteristically comfortable from that point — at least by his standards. He watched as his backline, and particularly Daniel Cardoso, snuffed out most aerial attacks with ease.
His Buccaneers’ counterpart Josef Zinnbauer, meanwhile, could seemingly do nothing as his men grew anxious with the lack of opportunities and their play turned increasingly experimental; yet their short corners and back heels were equally inefficient. In Soweto’s first German battle, there’s no question of who came out on top tactically.
Which is not to say Middendorp’s day would have been entirely free of frustration. The lead should have been easily doubled on a couple of occasions only, for the final pass or shot to go wasted.
Much of the criticism around the Glamour Boys leading up to this derby was their supposed predictability. In retrospect, the adjective is a bit harsh but this is very much a team of instinct. Give the ball to Manyama with defenders rushing in on him and he intuitively knows exactly what to do; give it to Khama Billiat when the expanse of the field opens up for him and his decision-making looks paralysed. If a coronation does indeed await this side it will arrive after they figure out how to turn possession against stubborn resistance.
But on this day a second goal wasn’t needed thanks to the superior instincts of one man: Daniel Akpeyi. The Nigerian had to carry much of the scrutiny that has been launched at Naturena, with calls for a fit-again Itumeleng Khune to step back between the posts. On Saturday’s evidence, the argument couldn’t be more infantile. His performance was inspiring in the truest sense of the word. The Amakhosi faithful gasped at each other as Akpeyi sprung to his feet to produce consecutive saves — as the ball flew out for a corner the disbelief turned into handshakes and embraces in celebration of his repeated heroics.
No surprise then that a vindicated Middendorp took the chance to get a little snarky after the game: “But believe me, if you start with this and then you say, ‘if I make this decision then it may backfire … oh no, take the beloved Itu Khune and ignore the performance level of a player you have in the training sessions’, oh my! If you think it will backfire then you must go and sell insurance or something.”
It’s hard to begrudge the German his wry smile and condescension this time around. All season he has insisted that there’s no reason to panic and Chiefs are on track — now he has put action to words on the biggest stage of them all. At the very least, he kicked off one hell of a party: the roads were once again filled with celebration at the conclusion of the match. The wide-open, grassy parking lot next to Nasrec turned into a mini-gathering as departing fans lingered for a while to take in the music from the Ultra Music Festival next door. No one will be forgetting this day soon — especially if there are to be more festivities at the end of the season.