I am following with very keen interest this weekend’s football match that has ignited the whole of South Africa.
It is the derby match between two of the biggest and oldest clubs in the South African League – Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. This is a rivalry that, I am told, started many decades ago and has not waned.
Following the immense interest generated by the event, no thanks to the well-oiled publicity machinery of Supersports, I am reminded of other great football derbies and rivalries that fuel the passion that makes football the world’s undisputed single most followed sport.
Through the years of my direct involvement in the game, I have seen and even experienced, first hand, some extreme competitiveness between several clubs, and even countries.
In Africa, some of the legendary and long standing ones include Canon Sportive and Tonnerre Kalala both of Yaounde in Cameroun; Zamalek and Al Ahly of Cairo in Egypt; Ashante Kotoko of Kumasi and Accra Hearts of Oak of Accra in Ghana; Vita of Kinshasha and TP Mazembe of Katanga in Congo FDC; Asec Mimosa and Africa Sports of Abidjan in Cote D’Ivoire; and so on.
At national team level, the great rivalries in the African continent include those between Egypt and Algeria, Senegal and Cote D’Ivoire, Morocco and Tunisia, Zambia and South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria, amongst others.
Every country or continent has their own local derby and rivalries that generate the tension, excitement, passion and followership without which football would not be the sport described by a famous English manager as ‘a sport where winning is greater than life and death!’
Even in Nigeria these days, where the political creation of smaller states from regions, has broken down the followership of clubs established originally along sectional or tribal lines, the keenness of the rivalries and a few derbies between clubs, has not waned at all.
The best and greatest example is that of Rangers FC of Enugu and Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan. The two teams boast the largest followership in the history of Nigerian football. Even though neither team has won any major trophies either locally or internationally in the past few decades, they still continue to maintain power over the Igbo and the Yoruba, two of Nigeria’s three major tribes that motivated their creation over forty years ago.
In the past forty three years, every time both teams play, the airwaves are electrified and a chain of passion and interest is set-off reminiscent of the magnitude of what is happening this weekend in South Africa between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
In my humble experience, the rivalry between Rangers International FC of Enugu and Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan, established in 1970, was and still remains till this day, the greatest in the history of Nigerian football. Permit me to take you down memory lane!
These two clubs represent more than your usual football clubs.
Rangers of Enugu rose from the ashes of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970. It was a vehicle conceived to restore and re-assert the dignity and status of the Igbo, not as a defeated people following the result of the war, but as the pre-dominant tribal group in Nigeria in the fields of commerce, education and the services (civil and military) before the war! The Igbo came up with a football club, striking at the core of every Nigerian, to compete, win and dominate the country’s greatest sport and passion.
Following the reaction of the Igbo to the dramatic end to the 1970 FA Cup final, in which Rangers FC met Shooting Stars FC and lost, it became clear what Rangers represented in the psyche of the Igbo person. When Rangers returned the following year the manner of their play and their attitude changed the nature, character and culture of Nigerian football forever.
Rangers came back in 1971 and started to play a robust, very physical style of play, with power, speed, strength and a fighting spirit that were uncharacteristic of Nigerian football before then. If anyone is looking for why the Super Eagles of Nigeria play the way they now do, with power, speed, athleticism and an uncommon do-or-die spirit, they need not look farther than what Rangers of Enugu handed Nigerian football in 1971.
They came back as wounded lions. They played like warriors. For five years no team in the country could match their playing style that was a combination of grit, flair, determination and an uncommon fighting spirit. They won every available trophy in Nigeria and went on to the African continent in search of the country’s first continental club trophy and came close to winning a few times.
It was the Yorubas who recognized what was going on. They countered it by building up the strength and base of their own already existing regional club, which gradually grew (as a product of the rivalry) into a movement of the thirty million Yoruba people at that time all over the world.
The rivalry between them became legendary. Although healthy, it transformed into a strong contest between the Igbo and the Yoruba for the physical, intellectual, economic and even political soul of the country.
From 1971 to 1975 Rangers dominated the fights. In 1976 Shooting Stars broke the monotony, and went ahead of Rangers to become the first Nigerian club to win a continental club championship. That elevated the rivalry even more.
In 1977 both teams played in the same African club competition and met at the semi-finals.
Not before and not since then has the country witnessed the like of what transpired at that time between the two clubs and their followers.
On the eve of the first semi-finals in Lagos, it almost deteriorated into a tribal war. Big buses streamed into Lagos from the east and west of Nigeria, loaded with supporters of both clubs. Twenty four hours before the game the national stadium complex was filled with supporters of both teams! The match ended in a goalless draw!
With six players each from the two clubs in the national team, and a crucial World Cup match coming up, the stakes shot sky-high. The tension for the return leg match was so high that on the eve of the game, the government of Nigeria had to intervene to douse it. The government sought CAF’s permission to move the match away from Lagos, considered part of Yoruba land to a neutral ground in the North of Nigeria. Even then, the Ahmadu Bello stadium in Kaduna, where the match was eventually taken, burst at the seams with the ocean of supporters that travelled from all over Nigeria to be a part of that great historic and unprecedented rivalry in 1977.
The rivalry between the two teams still exists and persists undiminished till this day.
I wish both Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates the best of luck in their El Klasico this weekend in South Africa, as they provide some more blood in the life of African football!