Friday, May 28, 2010

Crossing the divide

Last night, Bafana Bafana defeated Columbia by two penalties to one in Soccer City, Soweto. Penalties from Orlando Pirates' Teko Modise and Mamelodi Sundowns' Katlego Mphela in either half sandwiched Columbia's spot kick reply. The victory masked similar shortcomings to that of last Monday's game; defensive frailties and a lack of ability to penetrate the opposition's back line, although coach Carlos Alberto Parreira claimed that he was happy with the performance. A packed Soccer City filled with vuvuzelas, kuduzelas, flags, banners and a man eating cabbage (not to be confused with a man-eating cabbage) created a cauldron of noise and colour that could, come the World Cup, push Bafana that extra yard needed to progress beyond the group stage. This was the game that local favourites Steven Pienaar and Benni "10 pies and a bucket of KFC per day" McCarthy finally featured for Bafana in the World Cup warm-up and both players received rapturous cheers when they entered the game in the second half. Yet while Pienaar was instrumental in the flowing move that led to Siphiwe Tshabalala being brought down in the box, Benni cut an anonymous figure in the forward line. Doubts remain whether he will be in shape for the World Cup but without any obvious alternatives in the squad, Parreira may well be forced to go with him.

A busy Soccer City at night

Watching the game, my mind went back to a chilly evening in October 2008 when Bafana took on Malawi in a friendly at Germiston Stadium, Johannesburg. It was a depressing sight to see two thirds of the ground virtually empty for the first twenty minutes until a large group of fans were let in for free. Fast forward to last night and the transformation is amazing. People who have rarely been interested in the exploits of their national football team are now buying tickets in the thousands, wearing the shirt and learning to play the vuvuzela. I'm sceptical whether this will continue into September when Bafana face Niger in an African Nations Cup qualifier but for now, World Cup fever is gripping Jo'burg. You can't walk more than a few paces without seeing a SA flag or a Bafana shirt. A Kaizer Chiefs supporting friend of mine summed it up when he said that even Bulls and Stormers fans were supporting Bafana (a reference to the Super 14 rugby final being held in Soweto for the first time ever, an event that has been heralded by the media as "another step on the path to the affirmation" of a unified Rainbow Nation). South Africans are crossing the racial divide in SA sport, more than I had expected when I left South Africa in August last year. However, before I allow myself a warm fuzzy feeling from all this new found cameraderie, this changes very little in reality. While physical barriers have been temporarily lifted, what does someone barely surviving in an informal settlement have in common with someone living a luxurious lifestyle in Jo'burg's northern suburbs other than some abstract notion that they are all South African? The World Cup is not a panacea for the social ills of the country but it is a valuable building block.

Waving the flag but what does it mean to be South African?

Oh, and by eating the cabbage, it represents the ease in which Bafana will "eat up" the opposition. I've seen people use big cakes to make the same point. I know which one I would choose!

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