Just over forty years ago, Hellenic, an all-white football club, strolled into Johannesburg with a tangible sense of superiority. Their egotism was not unwarranted; their opposition – the recently-formed, all-black club Kaizer Chiefs – had been annihilated in the first leg, four socially charged goals to nil. Johannesburg was but the setting of an epilogue that had already been written. Signed with a flourish, it read: Hellenic – 1975 Chevrolet Champion of Champions. To any South African man, the words barely registered. They passed over the head like a wild shot. This was how the script was meant to end and it was all too predictable; the final words in an unambiguous play titled The Dominance of South African White Football.
Apartheid was sweeping across South Africa, suffocating the liberty of all non-white citizens and football was no different; white clubs reigned, boasting their own professional leagues and competitions. Black clubs were an afterthought – and why wouldn’t they be? In the sixties, at least, attendances were positively booming, and football was planting the first steps in its rise. But warning signs were by no means absent, even as white football thrived; the world was turning and dragging South Africa inexorably along with it. Exclusion from both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic games was followed by expulsion from the International Olympic Committee, and all the while South Africa tightened its vice upon apartheid.
Some years later, as international pressure mounted, a policy manifested itself in the form of ‘multinationalism’. Looking back, we can easily discern that this was mere appeasement, an attempt to persuade FIFA that apartheid was not unworkable by pitting black and white against each other. The 1975 Champion of Champions tournament was its product.
The tournament had been structured in such a way so as to guarantee a black versus white final, but the politics should not distract from the reality; a professional black club had never played a white club before, and the overarching implication was simple – black clubs were not good enough to compete. Little had been done to disprove the sentiment, as we know, in the first leg. The thought resonated on black and white faces alike, as the masses filed in to the stadium. It resonated in the dry smiles on Hellenic lips, and it resonated, quite perceptibly, in the hard, gritty countenances staring back. Lined up in formation under the Johannesburg sky, eleven pairs of eyes narrowed. Not today, those eyes said. We are Amakhosi. We are Kaizer Chiefs. Not today.
The location was the Rand Stadium, where 35,000 spectators packed into the stands. The crowd was no less vociferous than it had been in Cape Town for the first leg. It was a fitting soundtrack. At the twenty-minute mark, the music spiralled to a crescendo. Hellenic had burst beyond the Kaizer Chiefs defence and planted the ball into the back of the net. The Chiefs players looked amongst each other, bemused, and as their arms shot into the air, the same plea etched itself on to each and every one of their faces. Offside? The referee, Jack Taylor, white and British, waved away the disputations. Offside or not, chaos was ensured. Obscenities fired between open mouths, missiles flashed between spectators, and punches landed like thunderclaps in the night. The match was very nearly abandoned, but this was inconceivable, the Chiefs argued. The spectators were hungry for football and must be sated. Jack Taylor was inclined to agree, and so twenty-five minutes on, with the stadium partially placated, play resumed.
Kaizer Chiefs dusted themselves down, closed their ears to the world, and fixed their eyes on the only thing that could defeat the men lined up opposite – the ball in the centre of the pitch. Seventy minutes on, the scoreboard, a beacon of fact, displayed the numbers. Hellenic 1 – 2 Kaizer Chiefs. Where was the script now?
Hellenic had the prize money, true – some 14,000 rand – but Kaizer Chiefs were the real victors. For the first time ever, a black club had defeated a white one in South Africa. All across the nation, black citizens celebrated the victory as a personal form of redemption; apartheid could be broken, and football had proven it no less – the white man was not undefeatable.
Their image was not always so enchanting. In the early days, they were positively detested by much of the footballing world. Having been formed in 1970 by Kaizer Motaung on the back of conflict at Orlando Pirates – in which several of their players were expelled – there was a marked sense of distaste festering in the Johannesburg air. The Chiefs were upstarts, the nouveau riche in town; a South African MK Dons, if you will.
But they were also extraordinarily talented. Patrick ‘Ace’ Ntsoelengoe was the evidence. He toiled in those formative years. He toiled, and he sweated, and he dazzled his way into the hearts of South African spectators. He epitomised Kaizer Chiefs in a way that few others could. From his arrival in 1969 – under the then named Kaizer XI – he went on the represent the club for two decades. He stood on that Johannesburg pitch in 1975 and he still stood ten years later, the truest ambassador for the club there ever was. He endured the worst of apartheid, and the best of football.
This sort of longevity can go a long way in establishing identity. Ace, alongside a plethora of others – such as goalkeeper, Joseph ‘Banks’ Sethlodi, and Hermann ‘Pele’ Blaschke – endured together for years and years. It is a reality that the modern game denies. But indeed, it is an ironic thing that apartheid facilitated such a scenario; these brilliant players, with Ace standing at the top, bound together in South Africa by the sporting boycott imposed upon the nation. Where else would they go? They needed Kaizer Chiefs, and Kaizer Chiefs needed them. The two were inextricable.
So, strange as it is, the suffocating air of apartheid only allowed Kaizer Chiefs to breathe all the more freely. They became the Glamour Boys, men of large afros and bell-bottomed trousers. This was their image, and it was an appealing one. They soon became the most well-supported club in South Africa, aided no doubt by their successes. Without the lure of Europe, or the distraction of international football, Ace could exert all his energy on his beloved Kaizer Chiefs. The effect was monumental – between 1974 and 1984, the Chiefs collected a trophy in all but one season. Marks Maponyane, a former Chiefs striker, himself acknowledged the reality that Ace ‘was the reason’ they ‘won so many competitions.’
Of course, Ace failed to grace the world with his footballing ability (save for the USA during the offseason) and that remains one of the great travesties of the game. It perhaps explains why his name remains unfamiliar to the casual and learned football fan alike. It is a genuine shame, because in terms of technical ability, he rivalled the very best of the game. In a BBC article titled ‘The greatest player you never saw’, former coach Clive Barker was effusive in his praise, describing Ace as the ‘king’ of ‘South African football history.’ Had he been granted the opportunity, Barker suggests he would be remembered alongside such players as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
This was not hyperbole; one of Ace’s few opportunities for international football arose in 1976, in a ‘multi-racial’ South Africa team. Their opponents were Argentina, a quality team in their own right. To Ace they were just another obstacle; within ninety minutes, he had single-handedly humbled them, scoring four goals and leading his country to a 5-1 victory. Two years later, Ace sat back and watched Argentina lift the World Cup with a wry smile on his face.
Ace transferred that quality to Kaizer Chiefs for two decades. As they broke down racial barriers on the pitch to become the dominant force in South Africa, apartheid naturally became a secondary concern. When Gordon Siwani wrote in the Rand Daily Mail that on that fateful day in 1975, ‘Black soccer came of age’ he was not exaggerating. Kaizer Chiefs’ victory over Hellenic whetted the appetite of a nation, and the football climate began to change in concordance. Just two years later, the white-only NLF disbanded in the wake of plummeting attendances. The first ‘multiracial’ league initiated in 1978 and a white player, Lucky Stylianou, joined the Chiefs soon after. Fast-forward one year and the Chiefs were proudly holding the trophy aloft, having beaten numerous traditionally all-white clubs to the title.
Meanwhile, apartheid was stalling in the face of political activism and worldwide criticism. This was in part a culmination of the uncontained brutality of the Soweto uprising of 1976, in which some few hundred innocent protesters were murdered. Apartheid was denounced across the world and began the gradual descent into obsolescence.
For Kaizer Chiefs, the future was bright. It was a future moulded through the labour of the past. Indeed, in anything, adversity breeds defiance. It seems fitting that spearheaded by Ace, the Chiefs thrived in this climate and grew rapidly to become South Africa’s dominant footballing force. Player and fan alike were united in common interests, of liberty and expression. That victory over Hellenic in 1975 had come to signify all that the club stood for; individuality, modernity and a middle finger to convention, but there was yet much to come. Transcendent of politics, the Chiefs developed an unshakeable resolve, the like of which we are unlikely to see – in years forgotten and those to come – replicated again.