The lead up to the Soweto Derby is a time like no other. The gauntlet has been laid down and the day of reckoning draws ever closer. The stakes are at their highest when Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates do battle and the outcome of every encounter is etched upon the souls of both clubs and their respective supporters, be it ecstasy or agony.
The weight of expectation on the participants is immense. Heroes can be anointed and legends forged from exceptional performances in the fixture, while conversely, a costly calamity can take years to redeem in the eyes of the fans, if ever. A player discovers his true character on occasions such as this.
Perhaps owing to the exuberance of youth, although more likely an unwavering belief in himself, Mduduzi Shabalala, is totally undaunted by the magnitude of the game. In fact, he can barely wait for it. The teenage playmaker is expected to be involved in what will be his first taste of a league Derby, having already faced the Buccaneers in the Carling Cup during the World Cup break last December.
“To be honest, I have been thinking about it since last week because I knew I have been doing well and the team has been doing well,” says the 19-year-old.
Shabalala has been one of Amakhosi’s standout performers since breaking into the first team earlier this year and scored a spectacular goal against Golden Arrows in the team’s most recent outing. Despite being of tender age, he holds a mature view of the situation and sees the Derby as a chance to continue his process of evolving into a top-class footballer.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity, young as I am, to maintain the same focus and consistency and take it into the game,” he says.
His take on how Amakhosi should approach the clash is equally pragmatic: “We must play the game, not the occasion. The most important thing is to enjoy it and focus on ourselves,” he says. “We have been playing well. It’s just that we haven’t been getting the results that we want. We are focused on the big one that’s coming and I think we can change everything. We just have to play our football.”
On the other end of the spectrum sits a veteran of countless Soweto Derbies, a man who has seen it all and then some. For Club captain, Itumeleng Khune, the occasion presents a straightforward proposition. “The Derby is never easy, as you know. It’s a must win for both teams,” he states plainly.
The goalkeeper, who can boast a long highlight reel of remarkable feats between the sticks throughout a glittering career, has always felt that while winning is paramount, there are more subtle layers and plotlines to the Derby than just the overall result.
“Any player that walks on the park has friends outside of Kaizer Chiefs and before the Derby they will talk,” he says, recalling an amusing anecdote to illustrate the point: “If I can take you back to the days when I was in competition with the late Senzo Meyiwa, we would meet on national duty and plan, ‘Let’s give our fans something to smile about’. But still, you know, as Kaizer Chiefs, we had to win. And Senzo would say the same to me.”
The story reveals the friendly personal rivalry between the two iconic shot-stoppers. “The Derby has always been a great platform for us goalkeepers to showcase our talent, and obviously, to win the game and have the bragging rights between us,” Khune grins mischievously.
Khune is in contention with incumbent Brandon Pietersen for the Number 1 position in the team, but for him there is a greater purpose to prioritise than whether he plays or not. “It has been a great journey for me, having participated in 27 Derbies,” he says, adding, “It is more important for the Club to win the Derby and for our fans to have the bragging rights. So, going into this match, in our minds we are going to win and make it five in a row.”
The DStv Premiership blockbuster between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates takes place on Saturday, 25 February at FNB stadium.