Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Just Football article on the Soweto Derby

Here's another article that I wrote on the recent Soweto Derby at

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Diary of an Umlungu* at the Soweto Derby - Part Two

Saturday 9th March 2013

I had decided long ago that I was going to drive to the stadium myself, rather than travel with the branch of the supporters club that I'm a member of. So often they've been late or just on time. This time I wanted to get there extremely early to get a good seat and avoid yet more traffic chaos. There would be chaos as well as there were fewer police roadblocks and ticket check than at the Afcon. 

Smiles before a mediocre game

As soon as I'd got out of my car, I was greeted by a bunch of Chiefs supporters who, with the now customary greeting of "Hey, umlungu!", asked if they could take my photo. The one Pirates supporter looked at me with disdain, telling me that I should swap teams and support the Buccaneers. I just laughed it off and told him that Pirates fans would be crying by full time.

No matter how hard I try and fit in, I always seem to look stupid!

Arriving three hours before kickoff, the stadium was fairly empty. A few had had the same idea to avoid the chaos that comes with arriving later but I was free to wander around the stadium. Eating my now customary pap and steak, I could relax before the tension really started to build. With two hours to go, I found myself in the front row near the players tunnel. I was with some of the regular, and well-known supporters, swapping match predictions while boiling in the afternoon sun. Many asked me if I was cold as I was wearing a hoodie, but they laughed when they realised that I was just trying prevent myself from being burnt to a crisp. 

The SABC presenters were constantly adjusting their makeup

The SABC pundits and cameramen set up right in front of us; I'd never realised that to be on television required so many make-up fixes! As the tension built, the tv cameras and photographers kept turning back on where we were. As soon as the lens was on the supporters, they started dancing and singing as if a switch had just been flicked. I could either cling to my social awkwardness, not dance and sing, and look completely out of place, or I could throw my inhibitions to the wind and still look out of place. I choose the latter, partly because in that kind of atmosphere, you just have to let go. At one point, as I was absentmindedly looking around, I heard the umlungu shout again, only to see that I'd been umlungu-ed by a pitch-side umlungu photographer. This was confusing to all who had heard it and we had to laugh.

Maybe I was asking for trouble standing near these?

 When I had arrived, the stewards will diligently enforcing the ticketing system. As I had a R60, I was in the bottom section but by kickoff, it was highly dubious whether this had been uniformly enforced. For a sellout crowd, there were a number of empty seats in the top tier while people were cramming into the bottom tier. At so many of these occasion, the stewards are ineffective and standby. This isn't a criticism of the stewards as I'm not sure that they can do anything when faced with a swarm of supporters determined to go where they want to.

Gearing up for the big game
Standing right at the front, we were wedged in with limited ability to move. The aisles behind us had been filled with people so we at the front had little hope of getting back to get drinks. It was a hot day and many around me (including myself) were feeling the effects of the heat by half time. Some supporters started pleading with the pitch-side runners who were supplying drinks to the cameramen and television presenters to give them water. Many refused but a couple realised that it was a far from ideal situation and handed some bottles of water over. I for one was extremely grateful when I was given water as I was starting to feel the effects of the sun. A couple of rows behind me, someone had either collapsed or had fallen over and was not looking too good. Yet with so many people crammed into a small space, the stewards and security struggle to reach them. While lessons have been learned from the 2001 Ellis Park stadium disaster, there is still much to improve. Such crowd problems have the potential for some major issues, although on this day, nothing major happened. If they could do it during the World Cup, why can't domestic football effectively steward and police the local game. I'm not sure the political will is there.

Cramming into the bottom tier

Still, the carnival atmosphere that comes with derby day is an exciting one, and one that I've never experience back in the UK. I'm still learning the songs but at the very least I can play a vuvuzela. Those six weeks worth of trumpet lessons finally came in handy! A 0-0 draw was hardly the result that anyone wanted or that the hype around the game needed. A capacity FNB Stadium when a goal is scored is an electric place to be and I was sorely hoping to experience it once more. I think that the fans were robbed.

The game finished at 17:30 but I didn't get home until 20:30. I was stuck in my car for ages and spent two hours moving little more than twenty metres. When I finally was on my way home, I stopped off at a petrol station to get a much needed drink. Kitted out in my Chiefs gear, the pump attendants came over to talk to me. 

Them: Were you the umlungu at the game who was on the tv?

Me: Er, no hair and wearing sunglasses?

Them: Yes, that one.

Me: I guess that was me then.

Them: Pirates already have an umlungu. Now we (Chiefs) have one too! 

I drove the rest of the way home in quiet contemplation. I had had a similar conversation back in 2008 when Manchester United came over to play Chiefs and Pirates. In five years, has SA soccer fandom really changed that little, that the local game is still seen by most as a 'black' game?

*umlungu/ mlungu = white person

Diary of an Umlungu* at the Soweto Derby - Part One

Friday 8th March 2013

My supporters’ club membership for Kaizer Chiefs had expired a couple of years back while I was living in Edinburgh. There wasn’t much point in trying to renew it if I wasn’t going to be able to watch them play. I hadn’t bought a new Chiefs shirt in a few years either. I’d wanted the zebra one but I could never get hold of it in the UK.

Today I rectified both when I visited the Kaizer Chiefs village in Naturena, Soweto. It’s not a village in the conventional sense but an area housing the offices, training facilities and the club shop. With it being the day before the derby against Pirates, taxi loads of Chiefs supporters from across the country and beyond (supporters from Harare made an appearance) congregated at the village to renew memberships, buy new shirts and other merchandise, and get in a party mood. The club shop itself was like a mini Man Utd megastore, with a variety of shirts and other goods (the strangest was a wireless door bell – I guess someone might want it). The fans were parting with their hard-earned cash very easily as Chiefs’ branded plastic bags were stuffed full of the latest stock. Two free derby tickets with every home shirt purchased must have helped there.

You could buy home shirts, two different away shirts, training shirts, training vests, rugby shirts, golf shirts...
Yet also in the shop lurked a camera crew, well, cameraman and an interviewer. They made their way over to me and as I made eye contact with them, I knew exactly what they wanted and why, but I still wanted to get them to explicitly state it. They asked me if they could interview me for Kaizer Chiefs TV. The following exchange went something like this:

Me: But why would you want to interview me?

Them: We think that you’ll represent the diversity of Kaizer Chiefs fans.

Me: But I don’t think that I do. There aren’t many people like me.

Them: That doesn’t matter.

For diversity, read white. They couldn’t have known that I was an Englishman when they first asked me so it couldn’t have been that I was from overseas. The attention-seeking side of me loved this but it was also telling of the state of South African football fandom as a whole. The significance that these people had place on me because I looked different from everyone else reflects the sad truth that domestic football is often ignored by many white South Africans, so when a white guy supports a local team, it is often seen as strange. I remember back in 2009, The Star did a whole page article on an Orlando Pirates supporter just because he was white.

Sleep-deprived supporters from around SA enticed by free t-shirts and derby tickets being handed out

I wasn't going to start dancing but the Amakhosi faithful were getting into the party mood

The cameraman followed me to the membership office so he could film me filling in my form. I tried to do it in my best handwriting but even my best is just a messy scrawl. The interview itself didn’t last that long. At one point, I had to say Amakhosi 4 Life with two fingers up in the peace sign, which is the symbol that the Chiefs fans use to reflect their slogan of Love and Peace. This was done with a fair deal of social awkwardness as my English reserve was bitterly fighting against any such lack of inhibition. I bumbled my way through the next two or three minutes without too many 'ums' and 'ers' before making a hasty retreat. Still, for a brief moment, the researcher had become the researched. I don't think that my research training covered this.

*umlungu/ mlungu = white person

Friday, March 8, 2013

Soweto Derby Day

Tomorrow is the 148th edition of the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. This is the biggest fixture in South African football, and probably SA sport in general (sorry, rugby fans). With over 94,700 seats, FNB Stadium has been sold out for days. There has been a great rivalry between the two sides since Chiefs emerged from a split with Pirates in 1970. This game is even more significant given that Chiefs are top of the league, five points clear of second-place Pirates who have a game in hand.

The problem is that, come Saturday afternoon, there'll be many of the Amakhosi (Chiefs) and Buccaneers faithful desperate to get tickets. Despite many fans buying their tickets ahead of the game, the culture of last-minute ticket buying still remains. The PSL have stated that "The law will descend heavily on unruly and violent supporters". If the police perimeters do their job and prevent ticketless fans from entering the stadium precinct, problems will be minimised. If. There'll be some disappointed, and possibly disgruntled, fans who won't be able to get in.

This fixture has had a problematic history. The 1991 Orkney and 2001 Ellis Park Stadium disasters saw 42 and 43 people die respectively at games between the two sides. My own PhD research uncovered oral histories recalling violence and crime at these matches in the 1970s, with fans getting beaten up and mugged. Yet something has dramatically changed in recent years. In today's Star newspaper in Johannesburg, an article neatly sums it up calling it the Friendly Rivalry. Fans on both side will travel together in minibus taxis to the game and sit in the same stands. In my experience at these derby matches, I've never witnessed any problems other than some slightly beer-fuelled aggro, which has been quickly snuffed out by surrounding fans. Can you imagine Manchester United fans sitting side by side with Liverpool fans? I didn't think so.

Much has been made of the increasing global reach of this fixture. While Supersport uses its platform to broadcast across Africa, Al-Jazeera is doing the same across the Middle East and North Africa, while ESPN will be showing it in the UK and Ireland. For those watching overseas, you may get the impression that SA football is one big vibrant carnival. The problem is that you'd be wrong. Outside of the Soweto Derby, attendances are dwindling and at times miniscule. Soccer Laduma recently ran an editorial that reflected on poor attendances across the Premier Soccer League. If the figures quoted here are at the very least roughly accurate, a 6,000 PSL crowd average suggests some major structural flaw in the domestic game. The article is right to suggest that the derby is little more than a sticking plaster for the deep, underlying illness that plagues the PSL.

Still, if you get the opportunity to watch the game, wherever you are, and you can get through the drone of vuvuzelas through the television, you may get an inkling of the electric atmosphere. Having been to both the Manchester and Soweto derbies, I'll conclude with the following: the football is better in Manchester but the atmosphere is better in Soweto!

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.

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