Monday, February 18, 2013

Malaise on the pitch, malaise off the pitch

At the weekend, I went along to FNB Stadium to watch Kaizer Chiefs v Free State Stars. With Orlando Pirates leapfrogging Chiefs to top spot during the week, Chiefs desperately need to win to keep up the pressure. Chiefs won 2-1 but the three goals couldn't hide the fact that it wasn't the best example of the beautiful game.

Yet the game didn't only suffer from a lack of excitement on the pitch. In a stadium that can hold 90,000 people, there couldn't be more than 20,000 (the PSL do not supply accurate attendance figures). Empty seats aren't the most conducive for generating an exciting atmosphere. Maybe the R40 (£2.90) ticket price is too much for regular supporters? Maybe regular broadcasting of games on Supersport and SABC is keeping fans from the terraces? There is no data or evidence in South Africa to answer these question. However, what is evident is a major structural issue in SA football. If the biggest supported domestic club in South Africa cannot get close to filling half of the national stadium, what hope is there for the other clubs?

Fans clearly have better things to do with their time

Still, some hardy fans gave it a good go.

During the match, the advertising boards occasionally flashed up the following message:

That's just asking for trouble
Admittedly, patience isn't something that many South African football fans have. Within two minutes of the game kicking off, a poor touch incited Chiefs fans to boo and demand a substitution. Now if you support a team, booing and jeering is going to undermine the confidence of the players. I can understand why the club would send out these messages. Yet, what right do they have to expect these fans to conform? After all, it's the fans who buy the tickets and spend too much on over-priced merchandise. They've paid to be entertained and if the team isn't performing, you're not get your money's worth.

But who is right? Should the clubs simply expect blind loyalty from fans when they treat them as consumers and throw out expensive tat for them to gobble up? Some can separate 'team' from 'club', such as Manchester United fans who "Love United. Hate Glazers", but surely fans who deny their club a valuable revenue stream are damaging their team?

Maybe Simon Kuper is right, that football is just a job or business. Maybe we shouldn't have sympathy for those fans who complain about the state of the global game and then proceed to buy yet another replica shirt, myself included? Maybe we have the game that we deserve?

N.B. As I published this, Kaizer Chiefs have publicly condemned the booing fans from Saturday's game. The club's Facebook page has stated that "The Club will not tolerate this behaviour and perpetrators will be identified and dealt with accordingly." Will be they really be able to do this?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Back to normality?

Afcon 2013 is no more. Last night, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League restarted, but with a whimper as Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs played to a dour 0-0 stalemate at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. With seven of Bafana’s regulars in Chiefs’ starting eleven, fatigue appeared to play a part in a slow, plodding performance with some very poor decision making. Sundowns were the stronger side for the first half but neither side created many clear-cut chances.

Reacquainting myself with old friends and new

The game did not match the anticipation of the fans, who were eagerly awaiting the resumption of league football. Fans were still streaming in as the second half commenced, a combination of hectic traffic jams between Jo’burg and Pretoria, and fans leaving it until the last minute to make the journey. Still, with Chiefs supporters outnumbering Sundowns by at least two to one, it didn’t seem like an away game, although with Chiefs’ nationwide support, no game is an away game. 

The "home" fans

It was my first PSL game since I left South Africa in 2009, and two things struck me. Firstly, either the fans have got richer or the clubs are fleecing the fans for even more. I already knew about the ticket price hikes; it cost R20 for most Chiefs games in 2009 but last night cost R40 (£2.80). The price of food and drink had also risen by R5-10 but given the increase in food prices generally, this too was unsurprising. Yet, so many Chiefs fans appear have smartphones and tablets. When I wrote my thesis, such displays of wealth were at these games were rare. Not any more (and who in their right mind takes an iPad to a football match?).  I’ve previously complained about the high price of merchandise but I was shocked to be told by one fan that the Chiefs’ training jersey allegedly costs the princely sum of R800 (£57)! Yet as this fan said, “they know we will still pay for it”. Being a football supporter in South Africa is becoming an increasingly exclusive pastime.

South African football may not be the best but the fans know how to get dressed up

Secondly, in many PSL games that I went to during 2008-9, I often found myself as the token white guy in the crowd. People would want to have their photo taken with me, call me umlungu (Zulu for white person, although it has negative connotations) or just stare at me. This still happened last night but I was far from the only one. The World Cup and Afcon 2013 may yet have a positive legacy in South Africa football.

Taking bread to matches signifies beating the opposition as their daily bread but I can't for the life of me think what the significance of this is...

Afcon 2013 Videos

I've finally found the video clips of Afcon 2013 on my camera. Here's a little slice of what it was like at the tournament.

1.) South African fans getting irate at the score-bore between Bafana and Cape Verde.

2.) The closing ceremony starts but it's difficult to see the pitch.

3.) Despite going 1-0 down in the final, the Burkinabé drum and dance relentlessly.

4.) Final whistle goes, Nigeria run onto the pitch and the crowd celebrate.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Like the World Cup should have been

In the couple of days leading up to the Afcon final, street vendors began to appear selling Burkina Faso and Nigeria flags. This was far from the mass scale of flag-selling during the World Cup but it was still a sign that the Afcon party was belatedly infecting Johannesburg.

Want a flag?

Even the metro cops were joining in

Having made the decision to turn up extremely early to avoid the traffic chaos that I had experienced earlier in the tournament, my friend Chris and I arrived with a little less than four hours until kickoff. Even at this point, crowds were slowly streaming into the stadium precinct. Flags, vuvuzelas, body paint, makarapas, whistles and singing created a buzz. The vast majority of people were supporting Nigeria. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the large Nigerian community in the city, especially in the central areas of Hillbrow and Berea. What was surprising was the number of South Africans also supporting the Super Eagles. Crime and criminality have become associated with Nigerians living in the city and it is all too easy for people to blame 'Nigerians' for the city's problems. This football match appeared to turn this association upside down; being Nigerian or associating with Nigeria had become a positive thing, if only temporarily.

Nigerian fans already in party mode
African media agencies pounce on the partygoers
Walking towards the spectacular stadium, it was quickly apparent that this was unlike the World Cup almost three years previously. As football fans, we had been promised an African World Cup (whatever that entailed). After all, we had been repeatedly told that "It's Africa's Turn" and that South Africa would show the world what Africa had to offer. Instead, we were met with the bland, commercialised environment in which we could only consume official sponsors' products. Despite the introduction of cheaper category four tickets for South Africans, high ticket prices barred many of the domestic football supportership from participating. The local flavour of the tournament had been reduced to vuvuzelas. As one of my research informants summarised, "this could be anywhere!"
Sorry mate but Tunisia didn't qualify
I bet they did
This time was different. Cheaper tickets must have been a factor, allowing those who could be a part of the World Cup to engage, to experience and to celebrate. The final was a dream for the proponents of the Rainbow Nation. People of different races, ethnicity, class and gender were socialising with one another, dancing, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas together. Yet it was more than that. Whether their team had reached the final or not, the vast array of different African football shirts and flag signalled an wider belonging to Africa. Zambia, Ethiopia, Tunisia, DR Congo, Somalia and Tanzania were just a small number of those I saw.

Firestarters after Nigeria score
Police and stewards 'leap' into action
The bland hot dogs of the World Cup had been replaced with the pap and steak and boerwors rolls, staple foods at domestic matches (although prices had skyrocketed - Afcon final premium I guess. I paid R50 for my pap and steak). The small group of Burkinab√© near me drummed from start to final whistle, giving the tournament the beat that had been lacking. Despite their team never recovering from going 1-0 down, they carried on drumming and dancing throughout; an impressive effort. I had been given a giant inflatable orange hand, which I used to hi-five anyone who would let me. Three-quarters of the stadium erupted just before half time when Nigeria went ahead. Some idiots set off a flare, which forced the South African Police Service (who attempted to look casual and sporty in their tracksuits) to 'leap' into action. Despite going through five roadblocks to get to the stadium, the security checks on fans walking in were inconsistent at best. A feeble, half-hearted pat down from a steward would do little to detect things such as flares. This constantly happens at local games; my favourite is still seeing someone pull out a full bottle of whisky from his sock! Although better than the desert that made up the Mbombela pitch, the pitch at the National Stadium still resembled a beach with clouds of sand constantly kicked up by the players. A far cry from the World Cup. 

The Burkinabé supplied the beat

Pitch or beach?
And this creates a problem. I've fallen into the trap of comparing a westernised, modern, slick, commercialised World Cup with the chaotic yet dynamic African tournament. I'm not sure how to extricate myself from this other than to continue digging my hole with my romanticism of the final. It was vibrant, a celebration of African football, and a welcoming atmosphere. Most of all, it was fun.

The game wasn't bad either.

Nigeria fans in celebration

Nigeria prays in celebration as a tiny spaceship descends...
The inevitable traffic chaos ensued after the game as thousands of people tried to get home as quickly as possible, but this didn't seem to matter so much this time.

Nigeria celebrating on the big screen

The final party
Yet, as I drove to work this morning, the newspaper headlines attached to most Jo'burg streetlights were not about the final but Manchester United extending their lead at the top of the English Premier League. Is the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations already being forgotten?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The non-return of Football Fridays

I was driving home from work this evening when over the radio came an advert for Football Fridays, telling listeners to wear their Bafana or other African jerseys to celebrate the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in the country and support the national team. I was surprised when I heard this as it had taken until semi-final day for this to reach me. Now I haven't had my fingers in my ears or my eyes closed throughout this tournament so to only find out about this now is indicative of the weak interest in the Afcon. This was designed to get South Africans 'behind the boys' but the lack of evidence of this happening reveals the muted reaction that the tournament has received, at least here in Johannesburg.

Rewind to the 2010 World Cup and Football Fridays were a much different phenomenon. The initiative created by the Southern Sun hotel chain and subsequently endorsed by the tournament's organising committee, encouraged all South Africans to wear their Bafana jerseys to work on Fridays leading up to the World Cup. While designed to foster a nationwide support for Bafana, it actually reinforced divisions. The official Adidas shirts ranged from R300 to R1000 but those who couldn't afford it/ didn't want to spend that much turned to the vibrant black market in pirated, unofficial Bafana shirts. Football Fridays were a visible success with Bafana shirts seemingly everywhere on Fridays. In the aftermath of the tournament, Football Fridays became "Fly the Flag Fridays in which South Africans were encouraged to continue wearing their Bafana shirts although this quickly flopped.
Today, the attempted resurrection of Football Fridays has been the brainchild of Lead SA. The problem has been that there has not been the level of anticipation in the build up to the Afcon as there was for the World Cup, which had built up a critical mass of hype beforehand. It turns out that this time around, the initiative was dead in the water before it was launched.

Still, I shall belatedly enter into Football Friday and wear my Bafana shirt this Friday. Any excuse not to dress smart...

Monday, February 4, 2013

Just like watching England play

Over the weekend, we found out which nations will be competing in the semi-finals of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. While Nigeria shocked favourites Cote d'Ivoire, the more significant result from a Jo'burg perspective was South Africa's penalty shoot-out defeat to Mali. Prior to the tournament, South Africa wasn't fancied to progress far. After all, they had failed to qualify for the 2010 and 2012 editions and were only in this one courtesy of being hosts. The form book wasn't favourable and coach Gordon Igesund had only been with the side for six months. Still, after a sluggish (and very boring) start against Cape Verde, signs of improvement were clearly visible in the win against Angola and the battling draw against Morocco. We learned that Dean Furman and Itemelung Khune should be playing at a higher level.

With Bafana's progression out of their group came the overenthusiastic, and sometimes wildly over-optimistic, dreams of grandeur and success that many football fans go through, no matter how irrational. Instead of apathy or a quiet acceptance of Bafana's "inevitable" exit from the group stage, a belief that Bafana could win it emerged, and with that came the comparisons of the Afcon-winning side of 1996. Maybe it was fate that South Africa should win it again on home soil? From nowhere, street vendors had started selling South African flags, which had clearly not been the case earlier in the tournament. Bafana shirts were more visible than before.

What encapsulated this was ticket sales for the semi-final in Durban, in which Bafana would have featured had they beaten Mali. The day before the Mali match, over 30,000 tickets had already been sold and a much larger crowd than in many of the previous games this tournament. A friend had persuaded me to get tickets for this game should Bafana qualify. Four hours before the quarter final, I headed to my local Spar to get these tickets. When I got to the front of the queue, I found out that the ticket machine only had 33 tickets left in it. It turns out that Spar do not hold spare reams of tickets in store but instead have to get someone from the ticketing company to load their machines for them. This supply wasn't going to last very long and the extremely flustered shop assistant was only going to get more fraught.

Worse still. When I asked for tickets for the Durban semi-final, they had all been sold out. Clearly, there were enough people with blind faith in Bafana that they were prepared to gamble on them progressing further. Spare a thought for these people. Mali versus Nigeria could be a great fixture but when you're banking on your team playing, it's going to be an anti-climax. I wonder how many will actually attend this game?? With Bafana out, the atmosphere is flat but hopefully the remaining matches can still be a celebration of the best of African football.

So, Bafana were subject to wildly unrealistic expectations and got knocked out on penalties. It's just like watching England play...

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