Football is about rivarly, the bigger the rivarly, the bigger the game and the biggest derby that captures the imagination of the entire football world is the El Classico which features Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
In Africa, the big showdown is that between Al Ahly and Zamalek in Egypt which attracts 100 000 fans while the Soweto derby, a showdown between South Africa’s two biggest clubs—Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, is also a big one, so too Dynamos and Caps United in Zimbabwe.
On the domestic scene, the Blantyre derby, which features Big Bullets and Mighty Be Forward Wanderers, still commands a huge appeal although over the years it appeared to have lost its soul.
In the good old days, the Blantyre derby used to be a massive contest where the fans were guaranteed the best of local football.
This was a meeting of stars and it would parade talented artistst whose magical boots used to create lasting memories.
There were days when just watching Kinnah ‘Electric’ Phiri for Bullets and Barnett Gondwe for Wanderers, waltz past defenders at full pace, was good enough to charm the fans.
There were days when fans watched Lawrence ‘Lule’ Waya tear his way past bemused defenders and that was good enough to cheer their spirits; days when ‘Senetor’ Kennedy Malunga would deliver—whether with a decisive defence-splitting passs or mazzy dribble and his name would roll off the tongues of the blue side of town passionately.
Oh yes, days when Albert ‘Kika’ Mpinganjira or Andrew ‘Aluki’ Chikhosi would stun opponents and fans alike with their cheeky body swerves and vintage goals.
And the latest edition of the Blantyre derby rocked, not only from the sighs and sounds in the stands, but to some extent the quality on the pitch. It wasn’t certainly a vintage show, but it did take the fans down the memory lane.
The hype that characterised the showdown was also massive, probably because of both teams’ impressive start to the season, as soccer analyst Charles Nyirenda observed: “Wanderers’ revival coupled with both teams’ good start to the season played a big part.
“The dish that is served now cannot be compared to that which was served in the 1970s and 1980s’ but the Blantyre derby remains the biggest match on the domestic scene and the latest one was a clear testimony.”
And it is this unique thing about the Blantyre derby, where there will always be a window of hope for the other team no matter the circumstances, which makes it special and such a draw card for so many fans.
That a poor Blantyre derby—and there have been a fair number of such matches in recent years—does not destroy the interest of the fans, but rather lights up their imagination and pushes them deeper into fantasy world, where they draw comfort that the next one will certainly provide a better package, underlines the grip that it has on the local scene.
It still attracts such a massive interest, from its loyal followers and even growing a new base of fans among those who were too young to have seen Kinnah or Chamangwana in action.
“I never watched Kinnah nor Jack Chamangwana play and when the likes of Lule and Kennedy Malunga took over the show, I was still young.
“I am a Bullets fan inside out, but although some people say the derby has lost its soul over the years, I am still fascinated by it and whenever it comes up, I get excited,” said 25-year-old Boniface Saulo, a carpenter based in Soche, Blantyre.
That this game continues to draw in the crowds, there were 40 000 by conservative estimates in the latest showdown, even against the background of pathetic gate controls that blew the patience out of thousands of fans who returned home after tickets had sold out in the latest clash, is testimony of its special status.
The latest clash grossed a record K26.7 million.
Nomads legend Chamangwana, however observes that in recent times, the Blantyre derby tends to drain too much from the players, restricting them from expressing themselves “and turns them into robots who are so afraid of making mistakes and that is why it rarely rises to expectations, but it remains the biggest fixture on the local scene.”