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Soweto derby thriller a boost for SA football

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There are not many leagues around the world that can attract a crowd of 87,000 fans for a league fixture, where winning outweighs the importance of the log positions, even if the teams are rock-bottom.

Thabiso Lebitso of Orlando Pirates shoots and scores during the DStv Premiership 2023/24 football match against Kaizer Chiefs at Soccer City in Johannesburg, South Africa on 09 March 2024. Picture: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix

Herman Gibbs

Saturday’s world-renowned Soweto derby at the FNB Stadium has put South African football on the map yet again.

There are not many leagues around the world that can attract a crowd of 87,000 fans for a league fixture, where winning outweighs the importance of the log positions, even if the teams are rock-bottom. Before Saturday’s kick-off, both teams were outside the top four.

Three days before the match, the stadium’s management announced that all the suite tickets for the derby had been snapped up. Football’s well-heeled had bought up all hospitality packages to secure a front-row experience at the country’s greatest sporting event.

Although 87,000 attended the match, some commentators say around 90,000 people were in the NASREC precinct during the event. It may have been that ticketless fans were hoping for a miracle that would gain them entry into the Colosseum-like stadium.

This pre-match ticket frenzy did not point to the fact that the spirit of the famous Soweto derby would be rejuvenated because both teams had produced a stream of inconsistent results over the last while.

Moreover, Chiefs with the biggest fan base in South African football by a country mile, were a pale shadow of the team that was once dubbed the ‘Kings of South African football’.

As it turned out the teams produced a five-goal thriller which allowed the Soweto derby to live up to its expectations, for the first time in a while. This time there was jam-packed action, flair, flamboyance, and goals galore.

Recent derbies were dull, lacklustre affairs. The last time the Soweto derby produced at least five goals was on November 9, 2019, when Chiefs edged Pirates 3-2.

Saturday’s outcome also had a fairytale ending for Pirates gaffer, Spaniard José Riveiro. He became only the second Pirates coach to score a league double in a season over Chiefs, in the country’s oldest football rivalry. The Buccaneers won the head-to-head clash earlier in the season 1-0 thanks to a 20th-minute winner from Evidence Makgopa.

Pirates last completed a league ‘double’ over Chiefs in the 2008/2009 season under then-coach Dutchman Ruud Krol.

Saturday’s derby also unearthed a new hero for the Buccaneers. Pirates’ Soweto derby debutant Thabiso Lebitso scored an absolute screamer in the second half to crown his side’s fightback after Chiefs had taken a 2-1 lead.

Lebitso had a quiet first half but then produced a moment of big-match temperament to score a goal which he struck from 15m outside the opposition’s penalty area. It thundered in off the underside of the crossbar and will rank among the best Soweto derby goals ever.

In the second half, he proved his worth as a wing-back and based on this performance Pirates and Bafana Bafana have a potential match-winner waiting in the wings.

Defeat was another bitter pill to swallow for the Amakhosi faithful but there was one ray of sunshine after Ashley du Preez scored a brace. Maybe he is the answer to their search for an out-and-out goalscoring striker.

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