Thursday, January 31, 2013

Owning four Bafana shirts does not make me South African

Yesterday, I bought a new Bafana jersey. I now own four Bafana shirts. I only own three England football shirts. This does not make me South African (despite knowing the words to Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika).

Bafana shirt number four, and possibly my favourite.

I wasn't going to buy one but with all the Bafana shirts reduced by R200 in my local Totalsports shop, I couldn't resist. After all, I hadn't bought one since 2010. I had toyed with the idea of getting one but the astronomical R599 price tag had put me off. However, at R399, this was enough to make me falter and eventually I couldn't resist.

Yet, through all this, many questions arose and still remain unanswered:
  1. Bearing in mind that the core demographic of domestic football support in the country comes from the black, working class with very limited disposable income, who on earth thought that it was a good idea to charge R599 in the first place?
  2. If people can't afford the national jersey, does this then create a gulf between the "authentic" supporter with their official merchandise and those who have not?
  3. South Africa are hosting the continent's biggest football tournament and they've progressed beyond the group stage for the first time since 2002. It seems strange for a national chain to reduce prices now rather than after the tournament has finished.
What on earth is happening here?

Asking the shop assistant why they had been reduced by a third, he responded with the reason that Bafana supporters could buy the shirt and have money left over to put petrol in the tank or do food shopping. A noble sentiment perhaps but highly implausible that a national chain of sports shops would have such a social conscience.

While I may have been persuaded/ persuaded myself that R399 was reasonable for the shirt, it still remains extortionate for many in this country, especially for those who struggle to pay the R30-50 ticket price for a domestic Premier Soccer League match. Now some may (rightly) disagree here but in the modern, global game, buying the official merchandise of your team/ nation has become a key signifier of your authenticity as a supporter of said team/ nation. My own research on football fans in Johannesburg often bore this out. Sometimes those with pirated copies, out-of-date shirts and those without were seen as a lower level of supporter or fan by those who had the shirt. There were occasions when those who did not have were mocked by those who did. The current PSL league leaders, Kaizer Chiefs, sell two types of replica shirt. The more expensive is the authentic replica made from the same material as the players' shirts but at R599-699, there aren't many regular supporters who will be able to support them. The cheaper "supporters shirt" is made from cheaper, lower-grade material. R350-399 makes this more accessible but still not cheap. There is an economic segregation happening in the stands of South African football matches.

But let's put this into a bit of context. This doesn't just happen in South Africa but is a global problem. The distinction between those who can afford to buy the shirt and who can't and those who can afford the ticket price and those who can't is becoming wider. It's just in South Africa where economic disparity is so great that it is far more noticeable here.

So why has Totalsports reduced the cost of Bafana shirts at this stage of the Africa Cup of Nations? Maybe after all, they do have a heart and are allowing more South Africans to literally buy into Bafana?

Or maybe they just bought far too much stock thinking that 2013 would be like 2010, like many of us here? Unlike 2010, people are not wearing Bafana shirts in the same volume. Yes, you can still see them around on most streets but the apparent apathy has crept in here too. 2010 was a sea of yellow and green; in 2013, the yellow and green is just dotted around. The large quantity of Bafana shirts that I have seen unsold in many sports shops in the city may support this trend. It is not that South Africans are being unpatriotic. Far from it. It is just that they haven't bought into the tournament.

A colleague of mine pointed out that the barometer for all this is the merchandise being sold by informal vendors at major road intersections. During the World Cup, these people across the city sold flags, shirts and vuvuzelas. On match days when the Highveld Lions are playing cricket or the Lions are playing rugby, these vendors will also sell related merchandise (whether 'authentic' or pirated). This time, I have only seen two people sell South African flags. It's as if the tournament isn't happening.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Finding a fan park

In a recent post, I claimed that there were no fan parks in Johannesburg for the Africa Cup of Nations but it turns out that I was wrong. Well, sort of.

I had come to this conclusion when driving past the sites of the main 2010 World Cup fan parks in the city to find that nothing was happening. During the World Cup, Mary Fitzgerald Square had giant screens, banners, live music, a large beer tent and numerous stalls selling food prepared by local vendors and local goods such as makarapas (a quintessentially South African football item). A giant figure made up of Coca-Cola crates loomed large and was instantly recognisable from the highway. Crowds of fans from different parts of the city congregated to watch some of the matches, notably Bafana's win over France and the final, in a party atmosphere. This park was run by the city, in contrast to the other two in Sandton (in the north) and Soweto (in the south), which were official FIFA Fan Parks where only 'official' merchandise could be sold and consumed. These parks haven't re-emerged this time, and it has deadened the beat of the Afcon in Jo'burg.

Bafana v France at Mary Fitzgerald Square in 2010. This was the vibe that I was hoping for in 2013

Still, a reader had corrected me on the lack of fan parks in the city so I duly did a Google search. Lo and behold, I found that the city had organised nine fan parks in the greater Johannesburg area. Yet these are not like the fan parks that I've described above. During the World Cup, the city also set up a number of smaller fan parks located in the poorer parts of the city, under the Township TV scheme. Football fans, for whom tickets, transport and television were financially out of reach, could communally watch the games on a not-so-giant screen. However, when I went to these places, I found only small groups of people quietly watching the games. Not the celebratory environment that had been expected by the organisers.

For 2013, Township TV has again been used to reach those who cannot afford to go to the games and to watch them as part of a larger group. The organisers have said that they are expecting thousands to attend the nine parks, where you cannot wish for a more vibey celebration of this continental football extravaganza. It was also promising to read that security has been beefed-up as well.

So I headed down to Joubert Park in the centre of Johannesburg last night. To give you a brief taste, Joubert Park was a whites-only residential area under apartheid but today suffers from urban decay and borders the notorious Hillbrow and slightly less notorious Berea. Part of me thought that I shouldn't be there at night but my research experience there combined with the fact that I had never had any problems there before put my fears to rest.

Problem was that when I got there, there was no sign of the vibey celebration, nor the beefed up security. Only a few handfulls of people were sitting on the grass, watching the match. The screen itself was only three-quarters working, with the score permanently obscured. Commentary was fairly audible, but was underwhelming against the bustling sounds of the surrounding city as people made their way home. I had a few confused stares from people watching the game, as the only white guy there, but there was a general sense of apathy. Elsewhere in the park, the multiple chess games and especially the giant chess game appeared to draw more interest from passersby than the football did.

The 'crowds' at Joubert Park
Where is the vibe?

Yet, I have to make it clear that South Africa have not had long to organise hosting the tournament, which had been scheduled to have been in Libya. They've made a pretty good go of things considering. Burkina Faso v Zambia and Ethiopia v Nigeria were probably not fixtures that were going to alter Furthermore, Joubert Park was not one of the four parks that have been adorned with the local flavour of makarapas, SA flags, vuvuzelas and the patriotic fervour of our soccer fans in support of Bafana Bafana.  

Burkina Faso v Zambia and Ethiopia v Nigeria were probably not fixtures that were going to alter people's daily routines but come Saturday's quarter-final between SA and Mali, these parks may yet take on a new lease of life. Hopefully.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trapped by race

For the first time in ten years, the South African national football team (Bafana Bafana) progressed beyond the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations. Siyabonga Sangweni’s late strike secured a 2-2 draw against Morocco and first place in Group A. Cape Verde’s shock second place has to be the surprise of the tournament, although knocking out Cameroon in qualifying may have suggested that they weren’t going to be pushovers.

Yet what interests me is how Bafana Bafana have been reported in the papers, especially in the light of their 2-0 victory over Angola. The following morning, much praise was heaped on man-of-the-match midfielder Dean Furman. The Oldham Athletic captain received plaudits from critics and supporters alike for his domination in the centre of the park, nullifying most of Angola’s attacking play. While this was clearly a great personal achievement for Furman, the papers picked up on something that Furman could not help; he is white.

Is the most important thing about Furman is that he's white?

The Sowetan, a daily aimed predominantly at township readers, described Furman as a token mlungu (umlungu is zulu for white person), mentioning that he is one of two white players in the squad, the other being goalkeeper Wayne Sandilands. This begins to hint at just how important race and racial identity still is in post-apartheid South Africa. As a researcher on the social significance of football in the country and having attended many local football matches, I was often the token mlungu in the stadium. I was regularly a novelty and spectators would ask to have their photo taken with me, just because I was white. In Johannesburg, white soccer fans at domestic matches are rare (Bidvest Wits games are the exception) and white first-team players similarly so. Furman and Sandiland’s presence in the Bafana squad have similarly been constructed in the press as unusual, and therefore newsworthy.

John Robbie’s column in the Saturday Star went further:

There have been high profile incidents of rugby and cricket struggling to adhere to racial transformation policies post-apartheid. The Rugby World Cup winning team of 2007 had only two players were not white, despite the fact that it was thirteen years since the end of apartheid. Cricket too has had its scandals surrounding racial quotas; the spat between bowler Makhaya Ntini and now former coach Mickey Arthur springs to mind. Inversely, Bafana Bafana hasn’t had such a problem. The likes of Neil Tovey, Mark Fish, Matthew Booth, and now Dean Furman have shown that an inverse transformation policy hasn’t been necessary. I think that Bafana reflects the national demographic much closer than the Springboks (rugby) or the Proteas (cricket) ever have although in recent years, Bafana squads have been short on white players.

Still, behind the increasing hype/ decreasing apathy surrounding Bafana during this tournament, the attitude that if the Springboks and Proteas are subject to transformation policies, Bafana should be forced to field more white players still exists in some quarters. Alternatively, the conspiracy is that Bafana is already subject to a quota that keeps white players out. Robbie is right to refute such notions; the football team is not subject to a quota system.

What Furman unwittingly highlights is a key contradiction in South African life; race is both important and not at the same time. He is one of a squad of players regardless of race, wearing the Bafana jersey, singing the national anthem and representing the country. However, the sharp focus on his whiteness reveals the continued minefield of race and identity in South Africa.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A subdued beat

One of the key sights of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations has been emptiness. Aside from the opener between South Africa and Cape Verde, the TV cameras have picked up images of large swathes of empty seats. Whether it was Burkina Faso’s last gasp equaliser against Nigeria in Nelspruit or Tunisia’s equally late winner versus Algeria in Rustenburg, the empty seats appeared to outnumber the fans that had made the trip. Coverage from previous editions of the tournament in Ghana, Angola and Equatorial Guinea picked up similar images. This is clearly not a South African-only problem.

Empty seats at the AFCON 2013 opener. Other games have had far fewer spectators.

I had earlier hoped that the more reasonable pricing structure for this tournament as opposed to the 2010 World Cup would have made the games more accessible to majority of poorer, working class football fans; those who make up the vast majority of the support base of SA’s domestic clubs. The empty seats suggest that it’s reaching few people in general.

So what are the issues behind this?

Firstly, there aren’t many players in this tournament that can be described as superstars. In the World Cup, there was Messi, Ronaldo and the entire Spanish squad. This time around, there’s Drogba, whose career is winding down in China but few others. Yes, there are players such as Yaya Toure and Asamoah Gyan but they simply do not have the same star status. Why spend hard-earned money to watch two teams that you have little or no interest in?

Secondly, the 5 pm kick off times are hardly conducive to getting bums on seats. As I write this, I have one eye on the Bafana v Angola match. While attendance seems to be significantly greater than in most of the other matches, there are still many empty seats. Traffic at this time in the major cities can be nightmarish and some fans will be unwilling to put themselves through the gridlock and confusion. To make sure that you get to the stadium in plenty of time means taking the afternoon off work.

A big contributory factor has to be that there are few, if any African countries that have a large fan base with a large enough disposable income to fly out to the southern tip of the continent for the tournament. Unlike the vast hoards of travelling football tourists at the Euros or at the World Cup, the support of visiting teams is usually restricted to a small rump of die-hard regular fans who are sometimes subsided by the state or political parties. While the commitment on the part of these fans is impressive, this is not going to fill these former World Cup venue. This is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon.

But the thing that strikes me most as I write from Johannesburg is the absence of evidence that the stadium is taking place. In 2010, there were numerous posters around the city, large fan parks with big screens and people blowing vuvuzelas on street corners. Thousands crammed onto the streets in the north of the city when Bafana went on an open-top bus tour while a giant photo of Cristiano Ronaldo was emblazoned on Nelson Mandela Bridge. This time, it is severely underwhelming. There is no party atmosphere, no fan parks, little hype on the TV or radio. Bafana shirts are far less apparent on the street in contrast to 2010. It’s not totally absent though. Staff at my local Spar were wearing their Bafana shirts today, while bar staff on Soweto’s tourist strip on Vilikazi Street were doing the same.

Still, it’s as if the tournament has passed Jo’burg by and I wouldn’t be surprised if it passes most of South Africa by with little more than a passing awareness that Africa’s biggest football tournament is in their country. The slogan of the tournament is “The beat at Africa’s feet” but this beat is strangely subdued.

Maybe people realise that they have more important things to do than watch football?

N.B. Moses Mabhida stadium seems to be fuller in the second half. The commentator on Supersport has suggested that there is an excessive number of security cordons, which has delayed many fans from getting into the ground until the latter part of the first half.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Opening game and the search for the imaginary cemetery

If the ticketing process on the day was fairly smooth and unproblematic, the journey to the stadium for the opening games made up for it with its chaos and mayhem. As with the 2010 World Cup, park and ride, and park and walk schemes had been created to help facilitate the smooth arrival and departure of thousands of football fans although this wasn't announced when I tried to find out details only two weeks before the tournament.

The national stadium at night
That was the theory. My experience of it was didn’t fit the model.

Having been to many of the 2009 Confederations Cup and seven World Cup matches, I had developed an understanding of how these systems worked and the best ones to use. As with 2010, Jo’burg had multiple park and ride venues dotted around the city, where fans could park their cars and take the Rea Vaya bus transit system (initially introduced in time for the World Cup) to the FNB National Stadium. Alternatively, fans could park their cars at Park Station in the centre of Johannesburg and take the train. The other option was the park and walk, in which large car parking areas around the stadium were used and fans could walk the rest of the way to the uniquely designed ground, sandwiched between Jo’burg and Soweto. I had used this method on several occasions before and found it to be the most convenient way, especially when you knew the shortcut to avoid the highway.

It had started off so well. I bought the park and walk ticket from a Computicket outlet, a national chain of ticket sellers of various sporting and other cultural events. I had identified which area I wanted and handed over my R50.

I should have checked the ticket.

My girlfriend and I drove down to the stadium and I was growing in my smugness of bypassing the traffic queues. We’d driven through multiple police roadblocks designed to only allow ticket holders through and numerous policemen had seen our parking ticket. The problem was that it wasn’t for the area that I had asked for but for the “Cemetery”. I’d never seen or heard of a cemetery near the stadium, and it appeared that the stewards and police hadn’t either. We were told to drive on and turn right. So we did. Then we were told to drive on some more and turn right again. So we did. Eventually we were told later on that we had passed it despite no signs for it and we were clearly not the only ones; many drivers displayed confused looks. Eventually we found what allegedly was the cemetery, although there was not a gravestone in sight.

Yet, while this anecdote is a negative one, I refuse to believe that this was the only experience that match-goers had. Buses full of supporters arrived in the stadium precinct like clockwork, while fans were calmly pouring out of the adjacent train station. I’ll reserve judgement until I have a wider experience of this throughout the tournament.

Still, I wasn’t going to let this spoil my anticipation. Getting closer to the stadium, the wall of vuvuzela noise grew to deafening levels. Love it or hate it, the build-up to the opener between the hosts, South Africa, and Cape Verde was electric. The match had been sold out (although in reality, there were plenty of empty seats dotted around but more on that in a future post) and when the national anthems were played, I had goosebumps. Never had I heard Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika belted out with so much force and passion, and the subsequent rendition of Shosholoza (an old mine labourers song which is the only song at a national football match that most South Africans appear to know the words) was phenomenal.

There was passion at the beginning of the game but it soon died as Bafana's inability to score became apparent
And that was the best it got. For those of you who watched the match, you’ll know that it was a score-bore. Bafana Bafana were clueless and uninspiring. The minnows from Cape Verde at the very least deserved the draw, if not more. Whether this was Bafana’s true ability in stark reality or just a case of opening day jitters remains to be seen.

At least getting home was far easier (apart from when I got lost but I only have myself to blame)…

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The trouble with tickets

The first of my posts from the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa

The trouble with getting tickets for the 2013 edition of the Africa Cup of Nations was twofold. Firstly, as someone not living in South Africa, the only option was to buy them online. This in itself didn’t seem problematic but the tricky thing was that no-one seemed to know where this website was. When details of how to buy tickets in South Africa were released back in October, all that was mentioned for overseas visitors was that details would be forthcoming. Even the CAF website was strangely quiet. Knowing some South African sports journalists, I turned to them for the information required but even the people in the know didn’t know. Eventually, in December, word got to me via Facebook that the site was now active. I tried multiple times to order tickets online but the site kept crashing. Still, after some perseverance, I managed to get tickets for the opening game and the final at Johannesburg’s National Stadium.

The second problem was that on paying for the tickets, I only received a voucher to collect them on arrival. Again, not a problem as such until you realised that you could only pick them up from a small number of Spar shops from around the country. This was a major design flaw, not only from my perspective but for many South Africans. When ticket sales opened, some complained that they could not find one of these stores to buy tickets, they did not live near one and had no transport by which to get to one, or that the ticket machines were frequently offline. While there is a culture of leaving buying tickets to the last minute within South African football supporters, the ticketing process has undoubtedly contributed to vast numbers of tickets remaining unsold by the beginning of the tournament. Two days before the opening game, only one quarter of tickets for games at Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium had reportedly been sold.

In spite of all this, I managed to locate one such Spar and turned up six hours before kick off and found the ticket terminal. What I found was a German report and cameraman filming the ticket collection process. As tickets were being printed out, the camera went in for a close up of the machine. As these tickets were being handed over to a customer, the cameraman didn’t like the angle and so told the cashier to take them back and hand them over again, but only when he was ready. So when I was next in the queue, the reporter got excited that a couple of British tourists had travelled over for the tournament and the microphone was pointed in my direction. After my customary “um”, “er” and “ah”, it transpired that they were interested in the ticketing issue. On being asked what I thought of it all, I answered that despite the initial problems, it turned out to be straightforward. And it was. I walked into the shop, showed my voucher and my ID and walked out with my correct tickets. No problems, no fuss (apart from the TV people – they were from ZDF, if anyone wants to find out whether I made it onto German television).

And if you can look beyond the niggles that I was earlier moaning about, the ticketing for the tournament has been far better this time around than the World Cup in 2010. Not in terms of how to get tickets, but the relative affordability for the wider South African football-supporting public. Although FIFA’s flagship tournament had introduced the cheaper South African-only category 4 tickets designed to allow the majority of the country’s football support base (black, working class) the opportunity to be a part of the tournament, the cheapest ticket priced at R140/ £10 (domestic matches cost R20/ £1.40) still priced many out of attending. Factor in the cost of transport, and overpriced food and drink, a day out to a World Cup match was still beyond the reach of many.

This time around, the organisers appear to have hit closer to the mark. 2010 was more for the foreign tourists, but with tickets starting at R50/ £3.50 for the group games, it maybe that 2013 is a tournament for South Africans.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

El Clasico Westcountry

Forget Real v Barca. New Year's Day saw arguably the greatest derby fixture in the global football calendar: Taunton Town v Tiverton Town. El Clasico Westcountry, as this fixture has never been described, used to be the biggest non-league fixture in the southwest of England. In the 1990s, when both clubs were ever-present at the top of the Western League, this match could attract thousands (1,647 attended the last derby match in the Western League in Feb 1999). While this may not sound impressive on its own, getting over 1,000 people to part with their hard-earned cash to watch a bunch of postmen and PE teachers in the eighth tier of the English football pyramid was some achievement.
So the football may not have been of the highest quality but there was something addictive in that atmosphere. These two teams dominated the league, with the title held by one or the other between 1993 and 1999. Banter with the local neighbours from just up the M5 helped make this fixture a highly anticipated highlight of the season.
Sadly, El Clasico Westcountry is not what it once was. The large crowds, the chanting and excitement have since disappeared, with a rump of supporters reminiscing about happier days and trips to Wembley for the FA Vase final. 390 turned up for 2013's El Clasico Westcountry. While the small number of away fans made a sterling effort with a few "come on you yellows", this was the exception rather than the rule. No build-up, no anticipation. The quality of the fare on the pitch didn't do much to lift the spirits, especially as a Tiverton supporter. Despite attempts to play short passes, both teams often seemed content to hoof the ball.
You could feel the anticipation...
The game ended 0-0 but seemed superfluous to the real issue on display; the malaise and waning of non-league football. In these difficult economic times, paying £7 to watch amateur football seems far too expensive but with wider falling attendances in the non-league, clubs find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to increase ticket prices. This becomes a vicious circle, the increase in prices puts fans off, which in turn can lead to higher prices. I once paid 5 Euros to watch Real Madrid so why should fans be expected to fork out more to watch amateur footy? Has non-league football become so financially unviable that the communities that have grown up around these clubs will soon disappear. Why spend money on standing out in the cold on a winter's day when you can watch the world's best in the warmth of your own home on your widescreen TV with surround sound?
I would argue that these communities surrounding non-league clubs are where the 'beautiful game' truly exists but with such shrinking attendances, I feel as if I'm in the minority.

Tiverton on the defensive yet again

Taunton's epic floodlights finally kick in

Friday, January 4, 2013

South Africa-bound once more

It's been years since I last posted on this blog. It served its purpose during 2010, recording my experiences at the World Cup in South Africa and doubling as method of recording observational data for my PhD thesis. There didn't seem to be much point continuing with this blog once I had returned to the UK to write my thesis. The PhD took over my capacity to write about football, as well as my life. 100,000 words (and a few temper tantrums) later, there are now copies of it gathering dust on bookshelves. Was it worth it? I think so. How many opportunities will I get to travel to the other side of the world, meet so many different people and get to watch so much football? I fear that the answer is not many.
It seems a poignant time to start this blog up again after all this time. I'm currently waiting for my visa to come through for South Africa so I can start my postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Johannesburg, which means another chance to experience the highs and lows of a Soweto Derby day, and the highs and lows of following the SA national team. There have been some issues in getting my visa but I'm hoping that it will come through in time for me to head out for the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa. Three years after the World Cup, it'll be fascinating to see the legacy of the World Cup, if there has been one.

Hits since April 2010