Those ‘developed’ nations don’t know how to dance, stadium style

2008-05-16 00:00

Watching football on television, one crowd celebration looks pretty much the same as any other. The ball hits the back of the net and, as the commentators say, the crowd goes wild.

While the ecstatic scorer is variously embraced, hugged, squeezed and kissed by his teammates on the field (performing acts that would be regarded as infringing public decency on the street), the assembled ranks of the team’s supporters suddenly explode into a seething mass of cheering delirium. From Wembley to Ouagadougou, from the Bernabeu to the Maracana, in all the famous citadels of the beautiful game, the ritual celebrations appear virtually identical.

So, it seems.

In England, the reaction of many supporters to a goal being scored in a FA Premier League match is almost feral. Row upon row of apparently civilised, coherent and, in some cases, educated people, suddenly leap up from their seats, faces contorted with unbridled emotion. They clench their fists and repeatedly punch the air, and they generate an astonishing noise from the depths of their soul, or perhaps of their beer belly, that can only be described as primeval.

"Yeeeees! Get in there," the football fans will scream. "Let’s ‘ave another one!"

The tone is unmistakably violent and aggressive; the clear message is hostile exclamation at the expense of the opposing team, and their supporters. I know this is true. To be frank, I have leaped up from my seat, clenched fists punching the air, many times.

A similarly antagonistic mood is found among crowds celebrating goals in most of the established football countries in Europe. Even if the worst excesses of hooliganism — mass fist fights in the streets, rival supporters charging at each other like medieval armies — has been largely curtailed in recent years, the atmosphere among many soccer fans in Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland remains undeniably confrontational.

The same is true at major matches in Central and South America, where Argentine, Brazilian and Mexican supporters have historically struggled to keep their notoriously flammable emotions under control and, in recent years, even the normally inscrutable Asians have lurched towards mass hysteria in the stands.

Such behaviour, it seems, has become the international norm for football.

In fact, it isn’t.

Sitting amid many thousands of Kaizer Chiefs supporters when the Amakhosi played Bloemfontein Celtic in Pretoria last Wednesday night, it became abundantly clear that, in this country and in this continent, maybe uniquely, football is not a vehicle for hostility and aggression. On the contrary, it is a source of fun and pleasure.

When Chiefs scored, everyone did leap up from their seats, but there were no grotesquely contorted faces because everybody around us was smiling; there were no clenched fists because people were clapping, palms open and outstretched, in pure excitement.

Nobody was shouting or screaming hysterical abuse at anybody, because almost everyone was standing and dancing … properly dancing with the kind of natural rhythm that genetically eludes most north Europeans, swaying to some king of inherent beat, celebrating the goal not for manic moments, but for lingering minutes.

Watching on television or even from a cocooned Press Box in the main grandstand, celebrating spectators may look like not much more than just another group of celebrating spectators; you actually have to sit among the people to realise that watching football is an infinitely more enjoyable experience in this country, and elsewhere in Africa, than it is in reportedly more developed parts of the world.

Perhaps this will be the great discovery of visiting supporters who attend the Fifa World Cup in 2010. Perhaps apparently civilised fans, with the feral beast within, will pour through OR Tambo airport into South Africa’s gleaming new stadiums and suddenly rediscover football not as a vehicle for hostility, but as a source of pure joy.

Maybe South African soccer fans — people who typically work hard through the week and regard the opportunity to watch a football match as the fun part of their lives, people for whom the idea that anybody would want to scream and fight in the stadium seems completely ridiculous — maybe South African soccer fans will have something to teach the rest of the world, just to enjoy the game … and to dance.

oEdward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby.

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