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The impact of Orlando Pirates is unquantifiable, but here’s a glimpse of their sheer power

From Jomo Sono ditching his bride on their wedding day, to the formation of splinter teams – Pirates nurtured the soul of township vibrance during the height of struggle and violence, and gave people escape when there was none
Thu, Oct 08, 2020

Jomo Sono, MacDonald 'Rhee' Skosana and Blessing ‘Killer the Queen’ Mgidi of Orlando Pirates. PHOTO: Orlando Pirates Football Club Archives

  • This article is part two in our series exploring the heritage of SA’s football clubs. Read part one, about Moroka Swallows, here.

In an era where a club franchise can be bought at the blink of an eye, you wonder if heritage counts for anything. Bidvest Wits were here today and gone tomorrow. A bit of exaggeration – the Clever Boys existed for 99 years before they were sold, renamed and uprooted to Venda in a huff – but you get my point… all that history down the drain.

There’s no guarantee that the same won’t happen to Soweto giants Orlando Pirates. Although my bet is that there would be an uproar in that eventuality. I mean, think about it, the mighty Buccaneers, the home of the legendary Jomo Sono, the late Amos ‘Heel Extension’ Mkhari, Percy ‘Chippa’ Moloi, Ephraim ‘Shakes’ Mashaba, Patson ‘Sparks’ Banda and Blessing ‘Killer the Queen’ Mgidi suddenly ceasing to exist after more than 80 years as part of the Mzansi football culture?

As our generation eloquently puts it these days – “it will end in tears!”

Just to capture the magnitude of an institution the size of Pirates – recalling the story of Sono ditching his bride on their wedding day in February 1979 because he couldn’t miss a match, and it made so much sense to a lot of supporters at the time.

This slice of football history went on to inspire a Telkom television advert seven years ago. It relived Sono’s story, which Bra J, when looking back, described as madness. And it was – the man left his new wife literally at the altar of their church in Soweto to go rescue Pirates, who were trailing Highlands Park by two goals in the first half, and he turned the game on its head, handing the Buccaneers a 4-2 victory.

I’d love to see any of the modern-day footballers try that at one of Gauteng’s lavish wedding venues with judgmental family and friends looking on. None of them would probably live to tell the tale. Scratch that, the reality is that the majority might not be as passionate as to sacrifice like Bra J did for Pirates.

Another iconic image in SA football history, particularly one that involves Pirates, is of the packed crowds at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. It is in this venue that the beautiful game gave black people solace during apartheid.

It wasn’t the pretty renovated location that you see now after the 2010 World Cup. Today it boasts functioning toilets, an auditorium, media tribune, a parking lot, and robust barricades to keep out pitch invaders (though they know their way around the place). You know when you are house-hunting and come across what estate agents call “an investor’s dream”? That’s what Orlando Stadium was. It did not have the bells and whistles, but in the township it was home away from home.

What people cared about was that it was a venue where they could gather and, even for a moment, forget their hardships. Pirates have been part of that history for more than 80 years and counting.

Jomo Sono playing for Orlando Pirates which did not have the bells and whistles, but in the township it was home away from home. PHOTO: Orlando Pirates Football Club Archives

The Buccaneers, like it or not, are one of the reasons their bitter Soweto arch-rivals Kaizer Chiefs exist today. The founder Kaizer Motaung, who’d been a popular player at Pirates in the 1960s, returned home from America desperate to mediate an internal impasse and a pending disciplinary hearing at his beloved club.

When all his best efforts failed, he birthed Kaizer XI – and it became a new safe haven for those who were expelled from Pirates. Those are the origins of the “abafana bokuthula noxolo” moniker. It’s one of the most intriguing football stories you will ever hear, and there’s probably more to that story than what we’ve been told over the years.

In London, apparently, you don’t really have the luxury of picking your football team because it’s chosen for you while still doing cartwheels in the womb. It’s ingrained in you.

If your parents are from Liverpool, where the two most popular outfits are Liverpool FC and Everton FC of the Merseyside derby fame, then those are your two options, no other alternatives. Ask anyone born in London where their football loyalty lies, and the home city is as good a hint as you’re going to get.

But the Pirates story is unmatched, so much so that even a new-born baby will get goosebumps just hearing the tales of how this club became this great giant.

Why else do you think some are born with their arms crossed?