The cacophony of noise from the vuvuzelas began hours before and hung in the air for a good time after. The clamour of sound kept a consistent pitch, providing a deafening soundtrack to the excitement of the Soweto derby.
But the crescendo rose and fell with the drama of the day as Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs went head to head for the 135th time in almost four decades in what has long been the ‘classic' of the South African football season. Saturday's game at the recently renovated Ellis Park, site of the final of next month's FIFA Confederations Cup, proved a colourful test run as a FIFA inspection team for the tournament ran their eye over the facility.
The fans held court before the game but once the whistle sounded, the intensity of the long-standing rivalry between the two clubs switched from the stands to the pitch. Saturday was a breezy autumn afternoon in Johannesburg, although the air was electric with excitement. Tickets had been sold out for days, with a total of 51,616 inside the arena.
The two teams entered the pitch walking on a red carpet, looking steely eyed as they briefly posed for a team photograph before thrusting themselves into action. After all the pre-match build-up there was no desire to prolong the wait.
And there was little time, either, for either team to settle into a pattern or find their feet on the newly laid turf. A defensive error by the Chiefs inside the first two minutes offered Pirates a glorious opportunity to take the lead but Thulasizwe Mbuyane fluffed the chance. Pirates coach Ruud Krol held his head in his hand in exasperation; a gesture of frustration that was to be repeated over and over again throughout out the first half as Pirates ran the show but were unable to finish.
The former FIFA World Cup™ finalist must have thought his worst fears were going to be realised as Pirates' dominance begun to ebb away after Chiefs brought on the enterprising Venezuelan international Jose Torrealba at the start of the second half. The vast army of Chiefs fans, in their gold and black livery, swayed to the sound of the horns and whistles. Pirates' energetic fans looked increasingly nervous as their championship hopes threatened to evaporate in the gathering dusk.
But there was a late rally and a sudden period of sustained pressure from the Buccaneers. Chiefs finally cracked at a corner kick when a low ball was swept home by Katlego Mashego, the South African international, who brushed aside his marker and popped up in the right place at the right time.
Ellis Park erupted, its foundations threatened by the roar of noise. Pirates had finally breached their arch-rivals' defence. But, as in so many past derby matches, there were to be several more twists and turns to come, even though there was just 15 minutes remaining.
Chiefs' launched a rare attack and floated a cross into the penalty area. Pirates' Congo centre back Destin Makita rose imperiously to powerfully head it clear, serving only to clatter the ball into the back of his fellow defender Lucas Thwala, who then turned around to watch in horror as it ricocheted into the net. With 12 minutes on the clock the score was level again.
As the night sky enveloped the stadium, so the noise became louder and louder and the play more frenetic. Suddenly both teams believed they could win. The bodies were tired but the minds willing and the tempo picked up even more. Suddenly a slip in defence saw Pirates snatch the ball on the counter attack and the ball fell for Mashego again. As he ran into the penalty area, the stadium held its collective breath before he calmly side footed the winner into the net.
A 2-1 scoreline keeps Pirates in with a chance of the championship, confirms their CAF Champions League credentials and sets up a thrilling next seven days for the South African Premier League. But probably just as importantly, it establishes superiority in the Soweto derby, a prize at the pinnacle of the South African game.