South Africans embrace football kulcha

2009-11-24 11:46

Orlando Stadium, Soweto, on a Saturday afternoon in October. The

foghorn of hundreds of vuvuzelas (plastic trumpets) 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 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


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


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 across the country.

When a game clashes with work, “I say Orlando Pirates are playing

and they (his employers) say: ‘You must go’.”

At between R20 and R40 a ticket for a PSL game, he can afford


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 R140 for a group game, putting them beyond

reach of many in a country.

So far, out of the 700 000 tickets that have been sold for the Cup

to date, about 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


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


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.”

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