Lidoda Duvha from rural Thohoyandou have the best home support in the country, better than some football clubs from big cities with greater history and success. How do they do it?
Welcome to hell! These words aren't written anywhere at Thohoyandou Stadium, but they are there, etched in the minds and hearts of the visiting team when they enter the Black Leopards' slaughterhouse. The hostile treatment meted out to visitors starts before a ball is kicked.
Visitors' senses are assaulted the moment they enter Thohoyandou. The heat makes hell feel like a winter's evening. It's not by mistake that Lidoda Duvha play most of their home games during the day. The heat is their 13th man. It's menacing to a point that even the sweat sweats. It runs down your body in search of shade and a place to hide. When there is a breeze, it blows more hot air than a politician on an election campaign.
And then there are the club's supporters, their 12th man. The heart and soul of Leopards. The soul of the club can be found on the Zamalek stand while the heart is the thousands of residents from Thohoyandou and neighbouring areas in Limpopo who consistently come to the stadium to spur on Leopards, giving them the best home support in the country when numbers are dwindling even for clubs with a rich and successful history.
"Obviously it's exciting to have such a crowd consistently. But most importantly it's motivational, it makes us want to do better and do more," said Tshifhiwa Thidiela, Leopards' general manager and the son of club chairperson David Thidiela. "That's the reason we went all out in the transfer window, to try and break the bank to make sure that we get quality, experienced players, because the only way you can thank these people is by getting positive results.
"You need to make sure that you get the right kind of players to do that. If you check over and above the happenings in the stadium, if you go to town on matchday, there is always a buzz and excitement. The reason for that is the influence that the team has on the community, jobs that are created and businesses that are booming because of that. The socioeconomic status of the region grows because of the presence of the club here."
What Leopards mean to Thohoyandou
The club is a symbol of hope for its supporters, a perfect example of what they can achieve together. It's not just the Thidielas who benefit from the existence of the club, small businesses in the area also get a share of the pie. Those who sell food and beverages at the stadium make money on match days, along with filling stations that get more business from the visiting supporters, as well as the hospitality industry from those looking for accommodation.
"Our chairman, my father, when he eventually came into Black Leopards - you know he worked in football for many, many years and he has businesses in Gauteng and Soweto - the question he asked himself was that yes, I am serving people in Gauteng by doing all these things, but what am I doing for the people at home? When an opportunity with Black Leopards came, it came as a vehicle to serve the people," Tshifhiwa Thidiela said.
"Hence I am saying that the pride comes when people through the club, not just the players but the community, are able to fend for their families because of the presence of the club. Now that's what gives us pride to say that we can walk around and say we have done something and we've made a difference in the community."
The fans in the Zamalek stand make a huge difference when Leopards are playing. The name is borrowed from the colloquial term for Black Label beer. But it's not just the beer that's drunk on the stand that is predominantly shown by the cameras, there is also traditional beer in cartons and two-litre bottles cut to create a modern version of ukhamba, or calabash. Hydrated, because the heat is testing even for locals, fans in the Zamalek stand create a carnival atmosphere and provide entertainment that rivals the football match they came to see.
Luc Eymael vs Steve Komphela
In their 2-1 win over Lamontville Golden Arrows on Saturday 30 November, Leopards fans played a key role. Lidoda Duvha were nowhere in the first half. Abafana Bes'thende were running rings around them in search of six points from Limpopo, having beaten Baroka FC in Polokwane three days earlier. The heat was bearable when the game kicked off at 6pm.
But before kickoff, temperatures briefly dropped into the negative after a cold handshake between Arrows coach Steve Komphela and his Leopards counterpart, Luc Eymael. The two have waged a war of words since Eymael stopped short of saying he would love to join Kaizer Chiefs during Komphela's troubled stint. The former Bafana Bafana captain didn't take the betrayal well as there is an unwritten rule among coaches that you do not talk about wanting a job currently occupied by someone else. Komphela launched a campaign to ensure that Eymael didn't come back to South Africa after he left Free State Stars, saying it would be "naive" and "stupid" for any club to hire such a man.
Eymael, who has a black belt in karate and a sharp tongue, was diplomatic about Komphela's comments, saying, "When you do not know people, you often have so-called prejudices about the person. But before judging and criticising someone, I think you have to get to know him, really."
Leopards paid Komphela no mind. They signed the charismatic Eymael to bring more bite after a timid showing under Lionel Soccoia, who was sacked after five games. When Eymael got the Leopards job, most football supporters looked at when Lidoda Duvha would take on Komphela's men. November 30 was the day of their first meeting. They didn't shake hands so much as just touch each other's hands.
There was no emotion or even desire. The two were seemingly just being cordial so that their beef didn't take away from the match. When Leopards assistant coach Morgan Shivambu came to pay his respect to the Arrows bench, Komphela embraced him warmly.
The Leopards' great comeback
That drama guaranteed the match would be boiling hot. Neither coach wanted to lose to the other.
Arrows drew first blood with a goal from Knox Mutizwa from the penalty spot. The stadium went dead silent, then the Zamalek stand broke out into song. A drum on the centreline, beaten mercilessly by a gentleman in a red T-shirt, provided the rhythm.
The fans also chastised their team and called for Eymael to make changes. Arrows should have wrapped up the match in the first half, but the Leopards supporters' unwavering loyalty was rewarded with two quick goals in a space of two minutes, by Lesedi Kapinga and Themba Ndlovu.
"I sit at the Zamalek stand because I love the atmosphere there," said passionate Leopards supporter Lithole Shaka. "The atmosphere is electric. I love singing. That's why my voice is gone. The songs that we sing inspire the players to do more. I once asked the players if they hear us, and they said that they do."
Shaka was part of the loud and entertaining crowd on the Zamalek stand. They stood and sang throughout the game, while others paced frantically behind the barrier that fences off the pitch. A supporter known as Ramananga was wearing a long gown emblazoned with the words "Leopards' No. 1 fan". He paced up and down for the entire match, cajoling the players and reacting to every movement while animatedly playing a wood shaker. When the heat proved too much, he took off the gown and underneath was a bra.
Ramananga is what the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano had in mind when he wrote about the fanatic fan in his classic Football in Sun and Shadow. "In an epileptic fit, he [the fanatic] watches the match but does not see it. His arena is the stands. They are his battleground," Galeano wrote.
After the win, the Leopards players, technical team and even Tshifhiwa Thidiela went to the Zamalek stand to show their appreciation.
"I remember when I was still young, back home they used to support Chiefs and [Orlando] Pirates," Shaka said. "They bought me a Pirates T-shirt and made me support the club. But when I grew up, I fell in love with Black Leopards and coming to watch them at the stadium. I knew then that I am not a Buccaneer, I wasn't from Soweto but a proud citizen of Thohoyandou ... I support my team everywhere it goes. My love started during the days of the Telkom Charity Cup when I was around 13. I remember when we went to the old FNB Stadium, I was the only child in the bus.
"People were asking me why wasn't I at school, and I told them I am going to support Black Leopards. We would go to the telephone after school and vote for the team to be in the tournament. My love has grown over the years. I remember we had a game in Kanyamazane against Witbank Black Aces [when the team was still in the first division], we arranged transport to go there but we failed because not many people wanted to go. But I made a plan, even if it means catching a number of taxis. That's why then I formed a supporters' club where we can plan as a group to follow the team all over the country."
Return to the elite league
The passionate crowd was robbed of premier division football for five years after Leopards were relegated in 2013. They would make the play-offs and then struggle to gain promotion. They eventually cracked it last year, returning to the elite league with the most colourful and loudest supporters in the country.
"The crowd has consistently been there," said Thidiela. "We are in the far rural part of the country. It is very far, some people don't even want to come here. But you look at factors that are there, we have had issues with the stadium. And in such an area, you can't even blame the municipality for not responding positively when we say build us a better stadium because people are still looking for roads, they are still looking for water and houses. It's difficult for the municipality to go and budget money for things like stadia, but football brings a big difference in the area. It highlights how successful collective effort can be and how it can help us reach our objectives if we are together."
Leopards haven't done as well as they were expected to after their good showing in the transfer window. The club finds itself among mid-table teams, despite looking like they could do more than that after roping in experienced campaigners like Thuso Phala, Robert Ng'ambi, Mogakolodi Ngele, Thabo Matlaba and Siyabonga Zulu. Those players and the team have been underwhelming.
But what's more underwhelming is that for all their support from Thohoyandou, Leopards don't have many players from the region. It's something the club wants to change by not only having more homegrown talent but also by giving players from the surrounding areas a springboard to launch their careers.
"The difference that the team has brought into the area is our success story," said Thidiela. "You get touched when you walk in the streets and someone says that they will always support Black Leopards because my mom took me to school by selling food at the stadium. Now those, for me, are the success stories that one looks at when you are asked what have you done and what difference have you brought in the community.
"The saying at Black Leopards is that lidoda duvha, which means that the day will come. I think that things are gradually coming, day by day. Obviously, you want a day that will come where you find yourself winning the league, winning a trophy. We've gone to play in Africa. We have played in a final. We just need to be patient and rely on the Almighty that the day will come for whatever that we are wishing for."