Saturday, February 20, 2010
Over the rainbow in South Africa
Finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's powerful movie 'Invictus' this week, which opened here two months after its US release. I was especially impressed by Matt Damon, even if he looked more like Jay DeMerit than South African rugby skipper Francois Pienaar.
I thought its theme of a divided nation uniting through sport would be just the ticket in South Africa's World Cup year, and I remember the 1995 tournament pretty well.
Of course the sport in question was rugby union, not soccer, which only appears briefly in the opening scene as poor blacks kick a ball about on waste ground while wealthy whites enjoy the oval-ball game across the road on manicured turf. While it would be too banal to say soccer is for blacks and rugby for whites in South Africa, that is still pretty much the case as far as I can see.
Coming home yesterday I picked up their expat paper 'The South African', to find nothing on the Beautiful Game but six pages on what Welsh soccer fans call 'chase the egg'. The World Cup was on the front page, but only because President Jacob Zuma has fathered a child with the daughter of a 2010 tournament organizer. Later on there were mentions of vuvuzelas, fears of tournament crime and 'British hooligan fans' - I didn't know Scotland, Wales or N.Ireland had qualified...
I have only ever met white South Africans here and they all love rugby with only a token interest in their football. South Africa's main rugby star Bryan Habana is black but 13 of the 15 South Africans who won the Rugby World Cup in 2007 were white. The expat shops dotted around this city all sell Springbok (rugby) gear but nothing of Bafana Bafana (the national soccer team) or the approaching World Cup. To be fair, when I watched South Africa play Australia at football in a friendly here a couple of years ago, white South African expats did turn out to cheer their country, but in any case they are unrepresentative - blacks are the vast majority over there and they will be mad for the football in June.
So if there were ever a time for the whites to get into football this is it, but don't expect a repeat of Invictus' fairy-tale ending. At the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the Springboks were not the best team, but were in the chasing pack and had home field advantage. In 2010, Bafana Bafana, FIFA-ranked 81st, don't have a cheetah in hell's chance of lifting the trophy. Their crowning glory remains their 1996 African Cup of Nations win, where Nelson Mandela repeated his Invictus moment with the jersey.
At the end of the day it is less important that 9% of the Rainbow Nation get the soccer bug than South Africa host a trouble-free tournament. Most of the world will still be behind Bafana Bafana, because they are such underdogs and any tournament loses its sheen once the hosts are eliminated.
Pity Mexico, who drew the short straw of facing them in Soccer City in the opening game on June 11th.
-Sean O'Conor, London