THE controversial FNB Stadium pitch will come under global scrutiny when the Nasrec venue hosts the Soweto derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs on Saturday afternoon.
Southern African football’s biggest match will be broadcast in the US, New Zealand and Australia, among a host of other countries, but the biggest concern is whether venue operators Stadium Management SA have managed to restore the pitch from the shocking state it has been in since November.
Rock concerts have taken centre stage at the venue over the past few weeks and in the process left the turf in an appalling state.
Lady Gaga performed at the venue on Friday last week and Chiefs coach Stuart Baxter said on Thursday he was crossing his fingers that the pitch was not as disastrous as the last time he saw it, in November.
"I am hoping it will not be the case because it could affect the quality of the match," Baxter said.
"But I cannot waste my energy on something I cannot control."
The area of the surface most affected was the end of the pitch, which was used to erect the gigantic stage used for the Lady Gaga and Linkin Park concerts.
The penalty area on the north side of the pitch was greatly affected. Chiefs goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune said he had initially struggled to deal with the poor pitch, and had to adapt very quickly when he represented both club and country in matches played at FNB Stadium in November.
Local star Khune played for his club when Chiefs hosted Moroka Swallows and he also stood between the poles when Bafana Bafana tackled African Nations Cup champions Zambia in November.
This is one of the most highly anticipated Soweto derbies in years and the 92,000-seater venue was sold out in November.
Premiership log leaders Chiefs go into the match holding a three-point lead over second-placed Pirates. As Bucs coach Roger de Sa pointed out on Thursday, it has been a long time since the two Soweto rivals played this annual encounter while both are riding the crest of a wave.
"It will be cat and mouse, because for the first time the two teams are evenly matched," he said.
This will be De Sa’s first official Soweto derby since assuming the Pirates hot seat in September and he said he has been keeping close tabs on Kaizer Chiefs over the past few months. "Obviously we have been watching Chiefs and they have been playing some very attractive football. But we have got our own strengths as well and we have got to focus on what we can do.
"This game is never just about the three points. It is much more than that," he said.
Briton Baxter said he hoped the contest lives up to its prematch hype and showcases South African football to a global audience.
"I hope both teams can do this derby proud and show the face of South African football for what it really is … exciting."
Several South African football stars will be on parade and Sifiso Myeni will hope he is able to beat Khune on his first official derby since joining Bucs from Bidvest Wits.
Veteran striker Benni McCarthy returned during the midweek after a long injury layoff and will hope to win a place in the starting lineup to torment a defence he has always said he enjoys putting to the sword.
Weekend’s PSL matches
Tonight: Moroka Swallows vs SuperSport United at Dobsonville Stadium (8pm); Ajax Cape Town vs Maritzburg United at Athlone Stadium (8pm)
Saturday: Orlando Pirates vs Kaizer Chiefs at FNB Stadium (3:30pm); University of Pretoria vs Chippa United at Tuks Stadium (8:15pm); Platinum Stars vs Golden Arrows at Royal Bafokeng Stadium (8:15pm)
Sunday: AmaZulu vs Bidvest Wits at Moses Mabhida Stadium (3:30pm); Free State Stars vs Bloemfontein Celtic at Charles Mopeli Stadium (3:30pm); Mamelodi Sundowns vs Black Leopards at Lucas Moripe Stadium (3:30pm)