Lindsay Christison takes a trip to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. 

Across the road from Alexandra High School, where I spent five years of my childhood, is the Harry Gwala Stadium.  Named after an African National Congress icon, it is the home of South African top flight club Maritzburg United.  Not much more than a pitch, some stands, and some floodlights, it is an unprepossessing venue.  Yet it has become something of a fortress in recent years, in keeping with Mr Gwala’s combative spirit.  Had United played all their games at home last season, they would have ended snugly in the top half of the PSL log.  By contrast, they were second from bottom in the ‘away table.’  The team’s home record owes much to passionate local supporters, who, unusually for South Africa, are drawn from all racial groups.  High-flying Ajax Cape Town succumbed 3-0 at Harry Gwala in January, and all visiting teams now approach games in sultry Pietermaritzburg with circumspection.  Understandably, when required by the League to play a home cup tie an hour’s drive away in Durban late last year, club management indignantly resisted, but without success.  The displaced Maritzburg United went down by three goals to the season’s eventual treble-champions Orlando Pirates. 

With this background, it comes as a surprise that Maritzburg have agreed to play some of their home games nearly a thousand kilometres from base, at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth.  I now live in Port Elizabeth, the Windy City, and am not complaining about the prospect of seeing some decent football here.  In the heady days of the 2010 World Cup, the city’s custom-built arena hosted such games as England’s win over Slovenia and the thrilling Uruguay-Germany play-off for third place.  Since then, however, the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium has become the home ground of the Kings rugby franchise.  Second-tier Bay United have been bought by a Limpopo entrepreneur and have disappeared into the bush and dust of the far interior.  So, it’s pleasing for football-starved locals to have professional teams coming to town after a long hiatus.  And, there is a significant financial incentive for Maritzburg United.  Still, it strikes me as a bit strange that the club will suddenly sacrifice the edge it appears to have at its true home.

The first game at Maritzburg United’s home from home is against South Africa’s glamour team, Kaizer Chiefs, on Tuesday evening, November 1.  I do not have any trouble finding a group of mates keen to join me for the match.  Nathan Moodaley will come.  So, too, will Lunga Sipunzi and Ronald Manthando.  Ronald is Malawian by birth but has spent most of his life in Zimbabwe.  He looks forward to seeing Zimbabwean stars Tinashe Nengomasha, Thomas Sweswe and Jimmy Jambo in action for Chiefs.  I phone Songezile ‘Sox’ Nkanjeni, and he needs no persuasion: he will bring his son Lutho, Toto Geza and Sydney Maqoqa.  At the Computicket booth, someone else is getting a ticket for the game.  He tells me he is a Sundowns supporter, but cannot miss the opportunity to see proper football.  The ticket price disturbs him, though.  At just forty Rand, a PSL ticket may seem cheap, but not to South Africa’s urban poor, and certainly not in the economically-depressed Eastern Cape.  A year ago, tickets were just twenty Rand, and, even then, crowds at many games were disappointing.  The Sundowns man bites the bullet, and says he will look out for me on Tuesday night. 

My ticket is a reminder that this will be a Maritzburg United ‘home’ game.  It has the club’s badge, designed with flawless logic: a football with the letter M in the middle.  Curling around the top of the ball is Maritzburg’s self-chosen nickname ‘Team of Choice’, which sounds rather like an election slogan, and might come better from somebody else.  I wonder how many locals will make the choice to support Maritzburg, and test the water in my own household:  “Who do you think will win – Kaizer Chiefs, or Maritzburg United?”  My wife Wendy and seven-year-old son Ian give me the sort of look one reserves for flat-Earthers, and answer “Kaizer Chiefs, or course!”  They do not even know that Maritzburg have just lost three games on the road, including a seven-nil pasting by SuperSport United.  Lara, who is not quite three, shows a willingness to think laterally.  “Um, Maritzburg United,” she says, after some deliberation.

On the day of the game, a light rain is falling.  Our local newspaper, The Herald, has little news, the main items being the scourge of dog-fighting in Port Elizabeth, and Kim Kardashian’s divorce.  There is a picture of Maritzburg striker Diyo Sibisi and goalkeeper-captain Shu-Aib Walters, who was South Africa’s third choice at the World Cup.  Unfortunately, Walters is mistaken in the caption for another player, Fadlu Davids.  In Pietermaritzburg, the fans will be getting restless.  I picture Desh Maharaj, from Bombay Road, staring wistfully at a beneficent Hanuman on the calendar in his lounge.  Desh has friends coming over to watch the game on television.  Alfred Zondi, from Sobantu, will be struggling to maintain concentration as he operates a forklift at Huletts Aluminium.  After his shift, he will see the match on a big screen at a tavern.

There is at least a chance for Maritzburg.  Coach Ian Palmer, in his second stint with the club, has instilled self-belief into a motley bunch of journeyman players, academy youngsters, and West Africans down on their luck.  He encourages his charges to improve themselves off the field, to study, to be successful outside of football.  In September, following a promising unbeaten run at the start of the season, Palmer was named Coach of the Month.  Things started to unravel after that, but the Team of Choice continues to hover around mid-table.  All hope is not yet lost.

The news from within the Chiefs camp may also encourage the Maritzburg faithful.  Serbian coach Vladimir Vermezovic has stripped popular fullback Jimmy Tau of the captain’s armband, for reasons that are not entirely clear.  If I understand the rationale correctly, Tau is too nice a guy to be an effective leader.  The rumoured argument between the gaffer and deposed captain would have gone something like this, then: 

“Jimmy, you’re too nice to captain the side.”

“But, I’m not nice, coach, honest!”

“Believe me, you’re really nice.”

“Seriously, though, I’m a terrible person.  Who’s been telling you stories behind my back?”

It doesn’t ring true, especially as Tau is known to speak his mind.  Henceforth, goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune will be captain, supported by a ‘captain’s committee’ of tractable players.  A case of too many Chiefs, you might say.  There has seldom been such stress in the empire started by Kaizer Motaung more than forty years ago, following his return from success as a player with Atlanta Chiefs in the NASL.  Motaung scion Bobby, the public face of the Soweto outfit, has lately been on television, apologising for emotional utterances.  He is apparently stretched to the limit, trying to fill several roles within the organization.  Today the Kaizer Chiefs logo is as recognisable in South Africa as that of Coca-Cola, and the club enjoys unparalleled support among the masses.  The trappings of this success would be largely familiar to football fans everywhere: a magazine in the shops, and merchandise wherever one looks, including shirts, caps, and scarves.  There is also the much-advertised Kaizer Chiefs Funeral Plan.  Seriously.  The popularity of Chiefs, the Amakhosi, is such that they are guaranteed support wherever they travel in South Africa.  Internal rumblings notwithstanding, it will be no different at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

Rain has disappeared by late afternoon, when I set out to fetch Nathan, Lunga and Ronald for the game.  I continue the opinion poll in the car.  Lunga is emphatic that Chiefs will walk the contest, while Nathan at least affects the manner of a connoisseur.  He doesn’t really care, he says, provided there are goals.  Ronald merely smiles.  Coming down Kipling Street from Diaz Road, the illuminated silvery frisbee of a stadium sparkles in the twilight.  It looks like a giant spaceship has landed next to North End Lake.  Unlike in the movie District 9, however, Soweto has come to the spaceship, not the other way round.  Hawkers have Kaizer Chiefs wares displayed all over the pavement along Fettes Road, but most of those arriving at the ground are already fully kitted out in black and golden yellow.  There isn’t a single Maritzburg United trinket to be seen.  We meet up with Sydney, Sox, young Lutho, and Toto.  Lutho is sporting a Kaizer Chiefs sunhat, which should protect him from the glare of the moon.  I have by now abandoned my survey.  These chaps know the neglected attributes of the players who warm the Chiefs bench all season.  They aren’t going to break ranks, even if they feel an upset is possible, which they don’t.  Someone sidles up, asking whether we have a spare ticket to sell him.  He lopes off, disappointed.  The time has come. 

With around ten thousand in attendance, the stadium is largely empty, but the fans sit in two tight blocks facing either sideline, looking – and sounding – more numerous than they are.  This must be a candidate for the strangest home game ever.  It is a home game in disguise.  I have heard that Chievo fans are thin on the ground in Verona, and occupy the visitors section of their own stadium.  But, they are at least present at home games.  We play “Spot the Maritzburg supporter” for a while.  At length, we think we see a tiny, thin blue nebula in the galaxy of black and yellow on the far terraces.  Poor beggars, that must be them. 

The Kaizer Chiefs fans are an entirely different matter.  Akin to Galatasaray supporters in Izmir, or Gunners fans in Bristol, you don’t know they’re there until chance brings their side to town.  The orchestration of this emergence by Amakhosi devotees is particularly startling, though.  Like the masked weaver birds, silent and unnoticed in winter, suddenly acquiring their black-and-yellow breeding plumage and erupting in swizzling noise, they have appeared from nowhere, swathed in the club’s new honeybee-striped strip, and blowing their vuvuzelas.  Ah, the vuvuzelas … If you come to a South African game expecting clever terrace songs, you might be disappointed with the dissonant blaring of the plastic trumpets.  But, surrender to the incredible noise, the aural testosterone, of this pseudo-tradition, and it is oddly intoxicating.  

On the field, the two teams are limbering up, Chiefs with a certain nonchalance, Maritzburg with the focus of a commando unit about to be dropped behind enemy lines.  Goalkeeper Walters is Maritzburg’s captain on the night, and beckons his players into a little scrum before kick-off.  Is it complacency or disharmony that holds Kaizer Chiefs back from a similar pep talk in the public eye?  One can only guess the answer. 

Glancing at the team sheets, there is reason for an Amakhosi swagger.  In the absence of the injured Khune, the side is captained by the Zimbabwean national skipper, defensive midfielder Tinashe Nengomasha, popularly known as ‘The General.’  A solid and experienced defence is matched by the creative talents of Siphiwe Tshabalala, whose opening goal of the World Cup is both the best and the worst thing to have happened to the player.  The dreadlocked ‘Shabba’, a left winger with a roving function in the Chiefs system, has produced goals as thrilling as that against Mexico.  One that somehow missed the record books, against Paraguay in Asuncion prior to the World Cup, stands out in my memory.  The player continues his industrious work week in and week out, seemingly unspoilt by the attention he receives.  Problem is, following the World Cup goal, Chiefs have placed an unrealistic price-tag on their star, dissolving the interest at first shown in Europe.  Perhaps the game of transfer brinkmanship has been taken a little too far, though, as Tshabalala’s contract is about to expire, and the club risks losing its best asset for nothing.  Spearheading the Chiefs assault will be attacking midfielder George Lebese and national team striker Bernard Parker.  Lebese scored the winning goal against Tottenham Hotspur in a pre-season tournament.  Parker has returned home after a sojourn in Europe that started well with Red Star Belgrade, but dipped at Twente in Holland.  He is always capable of stunning goals.  

Maritzburg United will almost certainly be looking to keep things compact at the back, and to rely on swift counterattacks through their wide players, Nigerian Felix Obada on the right and Calvin Sosibo on the left.  They are a team bereft of stars, but Obada has represented his country at age-group level, while Sosibo had a short, unhappy spell at Ankaragucu in Turkey last year, and is relieved to be back in South Africa.  Stocky striker Diyo Sibisi and midfielder Kurt Lentjes have both sealed permanent moves after loan spells from more celebrated clubs. 

In Pietermaritzburg, Alfred Zondi has laid down his pool cue and taken a first beer at the Sobantu tavern.  Some plastic chairs are lined up in front of the flat screen, and he settles down in one.  In the semi-detached house in Bombay Road, Desh and the gang, all clad in blue and white, are ready for battle.  At the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the whistle blows.

Chiefs start strongly, and within four minutes Walters is obliged to punch away a shot on goal following a corner kick.  His clearance reaches only as far as Tshabalala, whose ambitious one-two with Lucky Baloyi almost comes off.  Maritzburg’s Mor Diouf gets to the rebound first, but the Senegalese central defender’s poor clearance tees up Chiefs’ Thomas Sweswe for a shot from the edge of the six-yard box.  Walters, with cover from fullback Rheece Evans, snuffs out the challenge.  Favourites Tshabalala and Jimmy Tau have only to touch the ball for the crowd to produce rapturous roars and vuvuzela blasts.  It sounds as if Jericho will fall any moment.  Jericho stays standing, for now.  On ten minutes, Maritzburg have a chance of their own when a long ball from Lentjes finds Sosibo, who lays the ball off for Sibisi.  The shot flies well over the cross-bar.  A sheepish Sibisi apologises to his team-mates. 

I am seated between Ronald and Sox, whose responses to the game are vastly different.  Ronald is pensive, not uttering a word, but taking everything in.  Sox is much more animated.  He expresses surprise that there is not a single Chiefs player on the bench, every spare man having gone for a jog around the field.  He questions tactics.  He anticipates substitutions.

For my part, I cannot help noticing that referee Daniel Bennett, South Africa’s top official, looks a trifle podgy, though he seems mobile enough.  Having failed a fitness examination at the start of the season, he has recently passed the re-test.

Chiefs continue their pressure throughout the first half.  Twenty-two minutes into the game, Lucky Baloyi, again combining well with Tshabalala, has a chance.  Fullback Evans rescues Maritzburg.  Two minutes later, and George Lebese feeds Baloyi, whose shot from a tight angle hits the advertising boards.  A brief Maritzburg foray into the Chiefs half on thirty-five minutes results in a corner, taken by Obada.  Diouf swivels, and shoots wide of the left post. 

Given the limitations of the vuvuzela as a musical instrument, it is surprising how often displays of virtuosity with the thing are attempted.  A fellow wearing a black-and-yellow Amakhosi robe with matching makarapa headdress – a Kaizer Chiefs high priest of sorts – comes and stands in front of us, vuvuzela at the ready.  He launches a series of deafening blasts.  I haven’t quite worked out the art form, but from what I can determine, it depends on the length of the pauses between each parp.  The makarapa on the chap’s head is a construction site hard hat, carved in rococo filigree and adorned with symbols of devotion to the Chiefs cause.  In the late seventies, an inventive Chiefs supporter was at a game when a fan was hit on the head by a beer bottle.  The inventor applied his mind to the challenge of protecting himself from injury while watching his favourite team.  A friend gave him a hard hat, or makarapa, and the rest is history.  The original protective purpose of the item must surely be compromised, though, by carving the plastic into intricate shapes with a Stanley knife. 

Although Chiefs’ slick passing gives the Maritzburg defence no respite, only once in the first half is Shu-Aib Walters truly beaten by a shot at goal.  It occurs in the forty-first minute, when a leftfooted rocket from midfielder Mthokozisi Yende goes microns wide.  Virtually on the stroke of half time, Lucky Baloyi attempts a shot from range that is athletically saved by the Maritzburg keeper.  Kaizer Chiefs have certainly had the better of the half.  There is still a mood of optimism in the crowd as the half-time whistle blows. 

A world away, at the Bombay Road semi in Pietermaritzburg, Desh and friends breathe a collective sigh of relief, and pass around a bowl of chivda.  Kwaito music again throbs from the Sobantu tavern as Alfred Zondi returns to the pool table for a few minutes.

Everybody knows Sox, who even has a street in an informal settlement named after him.  Just before kickoff, people were coming over to shake his hand.  Now, when Sox goes to buy some crisps from a kiosk behind the stands, I bask in his reflected glory: a man comes and sits down next to me, and shakes my hand.  Affability reigns.  One’s ticket clearly states that no alcohol is allowed on the stands.  Plastic tankards of lager have, however, been moving hand-to-hand into our section from the kiosks, and the joy index has risen appreciably.

The Team of Choice emerges from the tunnel with a plan.  Having sized up the opposition, they have dispensed with awe.  Within moments Obada has slipped past two defenders and blasted the ball goalwards at close range, inducing a fine reflex save from Chiefs’ goalkeeper Arthur Bartman.  Evidently unfazed by having been in court shortly before the match on a charge of assault, Bartman is having a good game between the sticks. The ensuing corner is taken by Obada, but a backpost header from his compatriot Prince Olomu flies over the crossbar.  Obada is the archaic out-and-out outside right, thrilling to watch when on the break.  On fifty-six minutes, a Maritzburg counterattack sees Obada in flight on the right flank.  Cutting in, he is either oblivious to Olomu unmarked in the box, or, more probably, keen to go for glory himself.  Under pressure from the Chiefs’ defence, he shoots wide of the right post. 

As the second half progresses, both teams look to their benches for options.  In the seventy-second minute, Calvin Sosibo makes way for debutant Morne Davids.  It is almost a dream baptism for Davids, as Obada again tears down the right, showing greater awareness on this occasion, and playing a great crossfield pass to the newcomer.  Davids fails to compose himself, and shoots over the bar. 

Sox says that either Josta Dladla or Lehlonolo Majoro must be brought on.  There is a school of thought to the effect that Kaizer Chiefs win games in which these players feature.  I acknowledge that Majoro had a very good season with Amazulu last year before securing his move to the big club.  The blaring vuvuzelas mimic a traffic snarl-up at an inner-city taxi rank, which reflects what Chiefs are experiencing on the field.  The Amakhosi are confining their attacks to the middle, not exploiting the flanks.  They lack width.  My companion is becoming impatient with Parker and Baloyi.  A slip-up by the not-so-lucky Baloyi, and fully a third of those present are on their feet in unison, twirling their arms in a recycling motion, like a few thousand tumbleweeds blown along together.  It is a display of mass will to rival the Mexican wave or Gremio avalanche.  In a piece of action that I somehow missed, Baloyi apparently failed to score from an easy chance late in the first half.  He has been on borrowed time since then.  Still, it seems to me that he has been at the heart of Chiefs’ most productive endeavours.  Unfortunately, though, he has not yet had any glorious watershed moment, and certainly no World Cup opening goal, to seal demigod status.  Vermezovic bides his time, but ultimately, in the seventy-fourth minute, it is Dladla who comes on for Baloyi.

The Windy City lives up to its name as chilly gusts slide down from the upper terraces.  My friends’ discomfort owes less to the temperature than to events on the field, however.  On eighty-five minutes, in an offensive move, Prince Olomu makes way for striker Fadlu Davids, who regularly captains Maritzburg when he is fit.  Davids’ complicated CV includes time at Bulgarian club Chernomorets Burgas.  Sox has resigned himself to a goalless draw, but I remind him that Maritzburg scored in the eighty-fifth minute against Santos a week before, only to lose through two goals before the end of optional time.  In the closing minutes, Chiefs throw everything at Maritzburg, and Sox rallies somewhat. 

At last, though, Bennett blows the final whistle.  Shu-Aib Walters drops to the ground, bowing toward Mecca. The black-and-yellow galaxy spirals away from the spaceship.  I want to stay a while, to absorb the moment, to allow the crowd to disperse.  We linger long enough to observe on a big screen that Maritzburg’s tall central defender Byrone Hendricks is man of the match.  The lads are clearly peeved, though, and none more so than Nathan, who wants to get away from the stadium as soon as possible.  He will come again only if there are better sides playing next time, he says.  As an aficionado of the beautiful game, he feels a travesty has occurred, and charges off in the direction of the car.  Well, it was a good game for defences, I suggest. Somehow, the words are of no comfort. 

Vladimir Vermezovic is gracious in the televised post-match interview, mentioning that Maritzburg had great opportunities to score in the second half.  He gives credit to Chiefs’ opponents, and to Obada in particular, for the dangerous counterattacks.  Ian Palmer does not appear to get ahead of himself, acknowledging that it was a game of two halves, with Maritzburg only becoming threatening in the second stanza.  He is pleased with the fact that his team kept compact at the back.  In the print media, both sides’ goalkeepers and defences get good ratings.  The Herald has tracked down a real-life diehard Maritzburg United supporter, Paul Lutchman, who travelled with the team.  “No matter where the team is playing, we will support them,” he enthuses.

In the days following the game, it dawns on me that the weight of popular opinion is entirely on my mate Nathan’s side.  The match is rated as dull by Kickoff magazine, and online comments about the five-minutes video highlights package express sympathy for the compilers.  Someone says that by watching the clip he has just wasted five minutes of his life.  On reflection, the game wasn’t pretty.  At the time, though, I did not think to ask whether the drama unfolding at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium represented spectacular football.  On the playing field, as in life, likelihood prevails more often than not.  Those who like to back a sure thing are comfortable with likelihood.  Yet, the romantics among us cherish the belief that sometimes the bits-and-pieces teams, the teams that blow their own vuvuzela because perhaps nobody else will, stand a chance against the popular sides with stellar players.  Sometimes, just sometimes, we are vindicated, if only by a goalless draw.