As Cici boarded her 777 for an overnight journey to London, I left my computer lab tutorial just after 8 pm and walked about 200 yards down Yale Road to enter modest Bidvest Stadium, home of South Africa Premier Soccer League’s (PSL) Bidvest Wits. The place was rocking. Tuesday evening’s league match was against the Kaizer Chiefs, arguably the biggest brand name in South African club football. I was first introduced to the Kaizer Chiefs in 2010 when visiting for the Fifa World Cup with friends. Their mustard-yellow and black jerseys were ubiquitous among local sports fans in Joburg, and they played in the largest Stadium in South Africa: Soccer City (now branded as FNB Stadium). The Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, the area’s second biggest team, both have roots in Soweto, where allegiances are split between the two clubs. Their fierce rivalry dates back to 1970, when the Kaizer Chiefs, 33 years younger than the Pirates, were founded.
This cross-town rivalry is made slightly more complicated by Joburg’s third PSL club, Bidvest Wits. While nicknamed the Clever Boys because of their location and association with Wits University, the club is strictly professional and completely different from the amateur side called Wits University FC. As an important side note, the Wits University mascot is the Kudos Kudu, which in my mind gives the UCSC Banana Slugs and Stetson University Mad Hatters a run for their money as best mascots ever. Bidvest Wits is a formidable PSL team, currently second in the PSL and one point above the visiting Kaizer Chiefs. They both trail the Mamelodi Sundowns in the league this year, yet another first-class team name to appreciate.
As I walked in to the southwest corner of the stadium just before halftime, a covered grandstand of about 4,000 Wits fans, mostly students, swayed, cheered, and danced to my left. They were a sea of Wits white and navy blue which contrasted against the equally-rowdy crowd of black- and yellow-clad Kaizer Chief supporters who packed together along makeshift bleachers, grass embankments, and retaining walls to my right. The distant flash of lightning periodically illuminated the sky behind the northern goal, one of the more surreal backdrops to a professional sporting event I’ve ever seen. Bidvest Wits’ stadium is small, listed as having a capacity of just 5,000 fans. There were closer to 10,000 people watching on this night with the loyal visiting fan base. To readers familiar with the San Jose Earthquakes’ former stadium situation on the Campus of Santa Clara University, Bidvest Stadium has a similar feel.
After the whistle blew for half time, I walked around to get my bearings and take in the atmosphere. I purchased a pint of beer and chips for R20 (about $1.25) at the Tuck Shop. There were also numerous vendors selling various salty snacks and frozen treats out of large plastic bags and personal coolers. I realized, as I had my backpack from class still on, that no one ever checked my bag when I entered. Any enterprising street vendor was permitted to enter with his or her sack of treats, and they walked up and down the grandstand doing pretty healthy business throughout the match.
Fifteen minutes in to the second half, with Wits controlling the majority of the possession and pushing for a goal, the Kaizer Chiefs broke on a counter attack. It was sprung by Siphiwe Tshabalala, the only player I recognized on the pitch thanks to his famous opening goal against Mexico in the 2010 World Cup. Eventually the ball found a Kaizer attacker about 25 yards out, who unleashed a powerful shot straight into the arm of a Wits defender. A free kick was called just inches outside of the box, which was expertly dispatched into the net by one George Maluleka. 1-0 Kaizer Chiefs. Unfortunately, the celebration was not as choreographed as the one from Tshabalala’s screaming World Cup goal five years ago. Tshabalala. I love saying his name.
Around the 80th minute, after a near-continuous onslaught on the Chiefs’ goal still yielded nothing for Wits, a student protester managed to hop the pitch-side fence and display a banner for the #Feesmustfall student movement. Inept security guards bounced after her to no avail before a Wits player eventually grabbed her arm and turned her over to authorities. As the players and Wits coaches looked on with frustration and dismay, the Wits student body in attendance roared with approval, chanting “Fees Must Fall!, Fees Must Fall!”. In a unwise move, security paraded the pitch invader along the front of the grandstand, inciting a few young men to start a fight with the guards. This was quickly neutralized as curious and excited onlookers rushed to get a glimpse, and the attention steered back to football.
Bidvest Wits continued to attack and the Kaizer Chiefs continued to survive, especially thanks to some crucial acrobatic saves by the Chiefs’ goalkeeper. When the 90 minute mark arrived, a rare 7 additional stoppage-time minutes were announced to be played due to the pitch invasion delay. Wits broke forward time after time, each ball getting more and more desperate until the whistle finally blew. The Kaizer Chiefs were victorious, and after the cruel result from a Wits fan’s point of view, the Chiefs are now just a point behind the Clever Boys in third place.
As a student at Wits University and a member of the Bidvest Wits fan club (Why not? It came with a free jersey.), I get free access to all home matches during the calendar year. After last night’s pulsating display and excellent atmosphere, I will definitely be back for many matches to come.