If the history of South African club football were written today, one of the oldest clubs in the country, Orlando Pirates, would be at the front and centre. Otherwise known as the Buccaneers or the Sea Robbers, the club was originally founded almost 75 years ago in the famed Soweto township in Johannesburg, and it has been one of the dominant forces in South African football for decades.
Their biggest achievement dates back to the mid-1990s when Pirates, then a largely unknown entity in African football, ascended to the highest summit when they won the CAF Champions League. It was a huge achievement for the club, and crucially it came at a time when South African football was slowly re-entering the international sporting world from the isoloation of the apartheid-era.
It was December in 1995 in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire where Pirates had an unlikely encounter with destiny against acclaimed club, ASEC Mimosa, in the second leg of the final of the Champions League. Pirates had been held 2-2 at Soccer City two weeks earlier in the first leg, but they turned their fortunes with a heroic 1-0 away victory over the Ivorians. Featuring star players like Mark Fish, Gavin Lane, Jerry Skhosana, John Moeti and Helman Mkhalele, they became the first, and so far only, team from South Africa to claim the continental crown.
Birth of an institution
Orlando Pirates is one of the oldest clubs in South African football, and they can also be said to have given birth to some of the country’s most celebrated teams, including Kaizer Chiefs and Jomo Cosmos. For supporters, Pirates have reserved bragging rights as one of the primary talent factories of South African football for the last two decades.
But the club’s history dates back to 1937. A story is told of how former boxing promoter, Andries Mkhwanazi, saw a talented group of boys playing football in one of the dusty streets of Soweto. In them he not only saw oozing talent, but the potential to form a football club. He encouraged the formation of a team, and barefoot and without colours or kit, they started their journey with the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association (JBFA). The success of the team quickly drew adoration from the township, and it was not long before they commanded a strong following.
By the late 1960s, the two most powerful clubs in the country were Orlando Pirates, now fondly referred to as Amabhakaniya or Ezimnyama Ngenkani, and Highlands Park, the latter then campaigning in the all-white National Football League. However, a faction in the club formed and some of team’s most celebrated sons left the team after a falling out. They joined the stylish former Pirates player Kaizer Motaung, who achieved fame playing in the NASL in the United States, at a new club called Kaizer XI (later renamed to Kaizer Chiefs). It was a big blow for Pirates.
By the mid-1970s, the club had re-grouped and unearthed new gems, and players like Jomo Sono, otherwise known as the Black Prince of African football, Shakes Mashaba, Percy ‘Chippa’ Moloi and Patson Banda formed a new generation of stars that won the league title four times in six years. In 1973, Pirates capped the season with a league victory, beating Golden Arrows 2-1 at Orlando Stadium in their final game, giving them claim to three trophies that year including the BP Top Eight and the Life Cup. Ironically, Sono went on to play with the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in the NASL and came back to South Africa to form another rival club, Jomo Cosmos.
The Soweto derby
When apartheid was at its worst, football gave hope in South Africa. Football stars emerged and rivalries were developed as people searched for hope. Soweto township, or Orlando Stadium to be precise, was where dreams were born and where some of the nation’s most decorated players paraded their skills.
Soweto, then a place of unrest and riots, was also the footballing Mecca of the country. It was here that one of the fiercest and longest-standing rivalries in South Africa was born between two Soweto clubs, Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs. The match between the two was dubbed the “Soweto derby,” and the drama of their matches quickly spread throughout South Africa. Today, it is still the biggest club contest on the nation’s football calendar.
The arrival of Dutchman Ruud Krol as the new coach of Pirates a season ago was praised as a breath of fresh air and the beginning of new era for the Bucs. After all, they had been starved of any silverware for more than three years, a situation that upset many Pirates followers given that Kaizer Chiefs had just completed back-to-back league championships. However, even led by the former Netherlands national team great and two-time FIFA World Cup™ finalist, Pirates again finished as runner-up for the second consecutive season.
Success is a necessity at the club, who were honoured by then-President Nelson Mandela. In 2001, Pirates won both the League and the BP Top Eight under highly rated South African coach, Gordon Igesund. They went on to repeat that feat in 2004. Now in search of new accomplishments and thirsty for more glory, Pirates have been ambitiously luring some of the country’s top players to their camp. And, in Krol, they may have a person with the experience to drive them back to the pinnacle.
Orlando Stadium, nicknamed the ‘Factory of Dreams,’ is historically one of the most sacred football venues in South Africa. Built in the late 1950s, it was the home base of the Orlando Pirates for much of that time until the new Orlando Stadium was unveiled in 2008. While the stadium was under construction, the Buccaneers settled in at Ellis Park in Johannesburg and quickly nicknamed the venue as the “House of Pain”. However, as the now state of the art Orlando Stadium has once again been opened to football, the Sea Robbers have returned to their old home in search of former heights.