|Give a little whistle: Referee Robert Smith and Pirate Andile Jali|
MANCHESTER and Soweto. Two football-mad communities 5,773 miles or 9 288km apart. At first glance they have just presented us with a pair of dazzling derbies, pitting two of the biggest clubs in their respective nations against each other.
Take One: At Soccer City on Saturday, in front of 90,000, champions Orlando Pirates took on the nation’s most popular club, Kaizer Chiefs, trailing their Soweto rivals by three points in the South African PSL.
Take Two: At the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, in front of 60,000, champions City took on the nation’s most popular club, United, trailing their Manchester rivals by three points in the English Premier League.
We could go on and on about the similarities. Both were games of two halves. Pirates dominated the first half of the Soweto derby, Chiefs the second as they came back to draw 1-1.
United dominated the first half of the Manchester derby, City the second as they came back from 2-0 down to 2-2.
Both referees were roundly condemned for a series of bizarre decisions. Both Manchester United’s Ashley Young and Orlando Pirates’ Collins Mbesuma had goals disallowed for off-side decisions that were to prove entirely spurious.
But then we come to the vital difference, the essential factor. In Manchester, both sides were looking for a winner until the final gasp of derby-drenched air. In Soweto, once Lehlohonolo Majoro had equalised Mbesuma’s opener, Kaizer Chiefs boss Stuart Baxter simply shut up shop, he was happy with a point.
Had substitute Benni McCarthy’s late volley roared in to the top of the net rather than just over the bar, it would have been a game to savour. Instead, with the nation and ESPN Star Sport’s international millions watching, we had to wait for never-say-die Platinum Stars to register an astonishing 6-4 over Golden Arrows to boast about the prolific goal-scoring of the PSL. And by then the international audience was gone, not to mention the domestic viewers, forced to endure AmaTuks 1, Chippa United 0.
In Manchester, Roberto Mancini, having dragged off the eternally angry Mario Balotelli, had thrown Carlos Tevez in to the fray (why he started with the Italian instead of the Argentinian we shall never know), much as Roger de Sa turned to McCarthy. It worked as City came back from the two first half Wayne Rooney goals to level through Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta with seven minutes remaining.
But through it all, we had ignored the single most important factor on the pitch. The presence of former Arsenal top-scorer Robin van Persie. When all seemed lost for United, Sir Alex Ferguson got up and gave us a septuagenarian version of Gangnam Style when Robin’s free-kick went in off cowering former Gunner team-mate Samir Nasri in the last minute.
It all went haywire after that, with Rio Ferdinand cut above the eye by a coin-throwing home fan – we all know Manchester City tend to throw money at their problems these days – and police stepped in to arrest the villain plus a pitch invader and a racist chanter as the derby came to a drama-soaked conclusion.
Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up pretty well afterwards, as he generally does: “It was a fantastic game; you couldn’t take your eyes off it.”
And that’s the point. Sure, Martin Atkinson in Manchester and Robert Smith in Soweto will be scrutinised for some dodgy decisions. The top of the table battles will be picked apart. All four coaches know the race is far from run. But the truth is, too many South African games don’t go down to the wire, the last drip of perspiration.
I felt last season that both Serbian Vladimir Vermezovic at Kaizer Chiefs and Brazilian Julio Leal at Orlando Pirates tended to treat games as “don’t lose” rather than “must win” situations. This season the surprising Baxter and his counterpart De Sa have been a lot more positive.
But what the PSL and their global audience needed on Saturday was a stirring final 20 minutes of “win or bust” from both coaches, throwing everything forward to clinch a vital three points against their closest and biggest rivals.
Instead, the experienced match-winner McCarthy aside, we had two teams scared to disappoint. It’s understandable. But it takes the edge of what could be the best league in Africa.
Sure, Katlego Mphela’s miracle Pitso Mosimane cure (apparently he was suffering from a sore Kneeskens) is worth debating after his comeback goal for Sundowns against Leopards. And we should talk about my beloved AmaZulu picking up a surprise point against Wits.
But it truth my plea is this: Go for glory with gusto. Like Everton did on Sunday against Spurs. Steven Pienaar got one of their two last-gasp goals in a 2-1 triumph when everything looked lost against his former club. According to the British Express over the weekend, Schillo is still mulling over a return to the Bafana Bafana ranks for AFCON 2013 next month.
But that’s a story for next week. This week’s lesson is: it’s never over until big Benni sings.