South Africans embrace football culture

Soweto (South Africa), Nov 24 (DPA) Orlando Stadium, Soweto, a Saturday afternoon in October. The foghorn of hundreds of plastic trumpets, called vuvuzelas, wafts up out of the stands across the sprawling township as if calling Sowetans to prayer.

Men and women in the yellow and black of Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates’ black pour through the turnstiles, whooping and leaping in excitement, ahead of a derby between two arch-rivals.

Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates are to Johannesburg what River Plate and Boca Juniors are to Buenos Aires or Glasgow Rangers and Celtic are to the Scottish city. The rivalry between the Amabhakabhaka (Buccaneers) and the Amakhosi (Chiefs), two of the top teams in the country’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) teams, is legendary.

“In the 80s, if you came here (to the Pirates home ground) and you didn’t do this they would beat you!,” Kaizer Chiefs steward Sammy Motsielwa says, clenching his fists and crossing his arms in front of his chest to make the Pirates’ crossbones sign.

Football is the sport of the poor black majority in South Africa, where youngsters in townships practise penalty kicks using balls made out of a wad of shopping bags and games are played on pitches that are sometimes no more than a rectangle of red earth with crooked boughs stitched together for goalposts.

Just as former England striker David Beckham inspired the haircuts of a generation of young English football fans, so too do South Africans copy their favourite players. The diagonally-parted corn rows of Bafana Bafana and Everton striker Steven Pienaar, adorn the head of many a young black man.

Fans of the Chiefs, which was formed by an ex-Pirates player in 1970 and whose motto is Peace and Love, say Pirates fans still like to fight.

But in reality football hooliganism is foreign here.

The most devout Chiefs and Pirates fans, the ones who wear plastic headdresses made from safety helmets in the colours of their team, are to be found sitting behind the same goal, in a cloud of marijuana smoke.

The atmosphere in the stadium is electric, with the braying of the vuvuzelas that so riled some European players and broadcasters during the June Confederations Cup, making conversation impossible. Local staples, such as stew and pap (maize porridge), are served up for a song by “stadium mamas”.

“Always the games, I am coming,” shouts Petrus Matlhoko, a helmeted middle-aged Pirates supporter, who works in a platinum mine about three hours drive north-west of Johannesburg and follows his team around the country.

When a game clashes with work, “I say Orlando Pirates are playing and they (his employers) say: ‘You must go’.”

At between 20 and 40 rand (2.6 dollars and 5.2 dollars) a ticket for a PSL game, he can afford it.

The World Cup, he says, is a different matter.

The cheapest, category-four World Cup tickets, which are reserved for South African residents, start at 140 rand (around 20 dollars) for a group game, putting them beyond reach of many in a country, where the minimum wage is about 200 dollars a month and more than one in four of working age is unemployed.

So far, out of the around 700,000 tickets that have been sold for the Cup to date, around half have gone to South Africans. In the final count, however, when foreign fans who have been waiting for the World Cup draw to secure their tickets book their place, foreigners are likely to heavily outnumber locals.

And if the Confed Cup, the eight-nation World Cup warm-up, is anything to go by, white South Africans will be out in large numbers.

Traditionally reared as rugby or cricket fans, whites are warming up to football in the run-up to the World Cup. White fans at the Confed Cup were to a man clad in Bafana yellow and green.

“Sure, it’s a sport that’s more readily available in the township but it’s not primarily a black man’s sport,” Allan Bader argues.

The clean-cut, 26-year-old insurance industry executive hired a minibus to take him and 11 friends from Johannesburg’s mostly-white northern suburbs to Soweto for the derby.

Despite being a Buccaneers fan, Bader has never been to a football game before. He had also never been to Soweto, epicentre of the anti-apartheid struggle and a staple on the tourist route.

After the game, which ended in a goalless draw, the group planned to retire to the northern suburbs to watch the national rugby final on television.

It’s scenes like these, of South Africans reaching out across to each other, across racial lines, that the country hopes to replicate on a grand scale next year.

That kind of South Africa, says Danny Jordaan, head of the World Cup organising committee and former anti-apartheid activist, “is the kind of society… that we worked hard for, that we struggled hard for”.