Soweto’s field of dreams

25 June 2009

In 1959, when the gates of Orlando Stadium in Soweto first opened and the grounds became the official home of the Johannesburg Bantu Football Association, few would have guessed that, 50 years later, the Brazilian national team would train on that very pitch.

An icon of both soccer and the struggle for freedom in South Africa’s famous township, Orlando Stadium holds a special place in the history of the game in the country.

It has launched many notable soccer careers, housed major football clubs such as Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows, and hosted countless Soweto derbys between traditional arch-rivals Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.

Only a month after the venue’s 50th birthday, Orlando Stadium continues to make its mark – as evidenced by the bus bearing a prominent “Brazil” sticker sittings outside the player’s entrance.

Gearing up for their 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup semifinal clash against South Africa, the Brazilians took on Kaizer Chiefs’ under-17 side in a practice match at the stadium this week.

With some of the world’s top footballing nations visiting the country for the tournament, ordinary South Africans have benefited from unique opportunities to engage with international stars outside of attending matches – in this case, seeing the South American samba kings of soccer at a stadium that holds so much importance, not only Soweto but for South Africa.

Sitting on the sidelines, South African football legend Doctor Khumalo, now the under-17 coach for Kaizer Chiefs, reflected on what Orlando Stadium means to him.

“I remember coming here when I was around 11 or 12 years old,” Khumalo said. “I would accompany my father to the stadium when he worked as assistant coach for Kaizer Chiefs. In those days I was one of the naughty boys, so I never thought I would play here! But eventually I made the first team.

“I first played in Orlando Stadium in 1987,” Khumalo said. “It was a league match against Pirates. I wasn’t nervous about playing Pirates, we had played them before at Ellis Park, but this was the first time I would play in the Derby, in the township.

“The crowd was always big when you played in the township – and that made me a little bit nervous.”

Back in 1987, Orlando Stadium could seat 24 000 people. Today, the newly revamped venue with its contemporary steel design can accommodate a crowd of 40 000.

Towering over the suburbs of Orlando East and Mzimhlophe, the stadium boasts a host of world-class facilities, including a 200-seater auditorium, a conference centre, a gymnasium and 120 hospitality suites.

“Today Orlando Stadium is an international stadium,” says Khumalo, who is also a 2010 Fifa World Cup ambassador. “Just look at the lights, the pitch, the stands – everything has changed.”

On the pitch, Khumalo’s boys are faring well against the Brazilians. “This is a great opportunity for the boys – an opportunity of a lifetime. This never happened in my time. But now, because of the Confederations Cup, we have Brazil right here.

“I don’t think people know how important this day is,” Khumalo said. “These boys grow up admiring guys like Pato, and now here they are playing right alongside him.

“Dreams have come true here at Orlando today. Lives have been changed.”

As the final whistle blows to mark the end of the training session, the under-17s make their way off the field, patting each other on the back. The pride is tangible.

They pose for a photo with the Brazilians, in a moment that forever seals an unforgettable day at Orlando Stadium – and another anecdote for the historians of Soweto and South African soccer.

Source: 2010 Fifa World Cup South Africa Organising Committee