Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
At first glance it seems like a run-of-the-mill football match. The supporters are in fine voice, fierce tackles fly in thick and fast, all the referee’s calls are contested furiously and committed attempts to con the Man in Black are executed. At one point, a player marked for substitution casts a questioning look towards the touchline before hanging his head in disappointment and applauding fans, hands above head, as he reluctantly trudges off the pitch.
But as they say, first impressions can be deceiving. The match that’s raging at this pockmarked, grass-deficient field in Sebokeng isn’t a competitive affair. It’s merely a six-a-side kick-about between two teams of special needs children in one of the more impoverished parts of South Africa.
It is also, one of the organizers asserts, visual proof of what hosting the World Cup means to South Africans regardless of the much-hyped drawbacks.
“Look at the smiles on their faces when they are playing football,” Simon ‘Bull’ Lehoko, a South African soccer legend says. “These kids might have so much sadness in their lives because of their mental handicaps, but all those evaporate the moment a ball crosses their line of vision. Football is such a harbinger of joy here. Even if South Africa hosting the World Cup won’t bring any direct benefits to the common man, as most analysts say, we’re no less proud and thrilled that FIFA gave us this chance.”
Lehoko and his band of ex-South African footballers organize matches like these around Sebokeng to reach out to communities. Watching the feisty encounter unfolding on this sun-baked pitch, one can’t help but realize the success of their venture.
Sebokeng is located in The Vaal, an impoverished collection of towns, townships and shanty towns in the gritty industrial area south of Johannesburg, where current South African captain Aaron Mokoena hails from. As a hotbed of football talent, The Vaal is unrivalled.
Yet, this most soccer mad of areas stands watching in envy as possibly less deserving districts get a share of the World Cup cake that Lehoko feels the Vaal merited.
“The Vaal was meant to have played host to some of the World Cup matches,” Lehoko states matter-of-factly. “We had a stadium here which used to be the home ground for the famous Vaal Professionals, but domestic football intrigue ensured that it fell into disuse.”
The 59-year-old continues: “We won’t gain at all from this World Cup. In fact, we’ll be partaking in it from far away. Our bid to get a World Cup stadium was frustrated not once, not twice but many times by the local authorities. Instead, they decided to grant us a mere training ground.”
That training complex in Sharpeville, a neighbouring township, – is reserved for use by Switzerland and the Ivory Coast. This means that the closest that inhabitants of The Vaal will get to benefiting from the 2010 World Cup goldmine will be through occasional sightings of the Ivorian and Swiss national teams as they come to stretch their hamstrings.
Patra Sindane, a youth leader in the area, isn’t happy with this sad state of affairs.
“At least if they had given us a stadium, we would, as an area, have earned some revenue once the action starts. But now, this training ground is largely useless. So much money meant for basic social services was diverted by the authorities to facilitate its construction and yet the rewards won’t be worth the expense. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the residents of the area, who sacrificed their basic social needs to have that training ground built, will benefit from it after the World Cup.”
Sindane adds: “Access to it is restricted for now and chances are it will be post-World Cup too. At the very best, residents from here who wish to access it after the World Cup will probably have to pay highly for the privilege. These special needs kids playing here now will still play on the same grassless, uneven pitches they played on before acutely scarce resources were diverted to construct that training complex.”
Nevertheless, Sindane realizes and concedes that not even the down sides can detract from the pride and joy the people of The Vaal feel at South Africa’s chance to host the first World Cup on African soil.
“People here and all over South Africa love football, make no mistake about it,” Sindane says. “Their love for the game supersedes any worries and fears they might harbour about the inequities this World Cup opportunity has brought. Analysts say that the expensive stadiums will turn into White Elephants, but people here don’t care much about such things.”
In essence, the majority of South Africans are painfully aware that the direct dividends of the World Cup won’t accrue to everyone. Nevertheless, since football is a national pastime, they are determined to enjoy the occasion as much as they possibly can.
Sindane affairms: “They just know that South Africa has an opportunity other countries would kill for. All they care about is that their favourite game is coming here to South Africa in its biggest form and nothing can suppress the pride this realization instigates. That’s the one positive attribute inherent in most Africans: living blissfully in the moment, being happy there and putting aside their worries totally”.
The veracity of Sindane’s words is manifest in the seven-a-side kick-about that’s taking place.
The turn-up is impressive, which is a blessing because aside from being spectators, the sizeable crowd is expected to form human boundaries to the official field of play. This is a necessity decreed by the lack of visible perimeter markings around the pitch.
And true to the African stereotype, this crowd is far from silent. With vuvuzelas in tow, both sets of fans chant and cheer from the moment the kick-off whistle blows. Even before the first minute is up, one set realizes that the goalkeeper in between the goalposts for its chosen team appears dodgy. When that same keeper concedes his first goal due to an atrocious flap, he inspires the first of many pitch invasions to come as both opposing sets of fans pour onto the field.
The jubilant fans celebrate wildly as some indulge in somersaults and outbreaks of animated dancing. The crestfallen lot confront their hapless goalie and demand to know if his eyesight is in proper working order.
Ushered off the pitch by the harassed-looking referee, both sets of fans are back within no time as Dodgy Keeper lets in his second of the afternoon. The leading side’s fans taunt their counterparts, who demand that their custodian be substituted on the spot.
Dodgy Keeper defiantly stands his ground, even after fans threaten to forcibly haul him off. With the referee impatiently herding them off the pitch however, Dodgy Keeper clings onto his place in goal, despite a resounding and public vote of no confidence from his own faithful.
Soon thereafter, he lets in a third. Or at least the match official rules he has. But the referee’s judgment is disputed by the trailing set of fans who confront him. A lengthy verbal exchange ensues, in which the Man in Black is assured the ball didn’t cross the line and his very integrity is questioned. One cheeky fan even tries to snatch his whistle, which is perhaps why he makes a sudden U-turn, to the consternation of the other half of the watching crowd.
Our butter-fingered hero in goal is handed another stay of execution. But that’s short-lived as he concedes another soft goal just moments later. This time, the irate fans brook no resistance. They replace him with one of their own.
And when that replacement makes a routine save three minutes thereafter, hastily-composed poems are sung in his honour and one frenzied faithful even storms the pitch and tries to carry him shoulder-high, unbothered by the fact that the ball is still in play.
The much-vaunted replacement, however, soon also concedes a goal, proving possibly that his disgraced predecessor wasn’t so much a liability as just a chink in an already weak ensemble.
At the end of this captivating spectacle, the score-line is 7-1. The losing side score its consolation goal after a dodgy penalty award that is celebrated like The Second Coming.
At the final whistle, the winning fans are delirious with delight. They invade the pitch one last time. But as they prance around in euphoria, no one seems shocked by the sight of the referee in the midst of it all; indulging in a little self-congratulatory jig. Perhaps he feels fortunate to have escaped with his life.
As the trophies are handed out (everyone gets a trophy of some kind, even the losers), the smiles plastered upon the faces of victors and the vanquished alike make one fact patent: The World Cup might come with its own problems, but it will take a lot more to smother the cheerful spirit that lurks within these uncomplicated and football-loving residents of Sebokeng, or other South Africans for that matter.