JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – When the World Cup kicks off on June 11, South African soccer will have completed an incredible journey: from international pariah to host of the world’s greatest football tournament.
South Africa is a sports-mad country where rugby, cricket and track have all found international success, but it is soccer that has proved to be the country's biggest engine for change. From segregated townships to the prison of Robben Island, soccer has contributed as much as any sport could to transform South Africa into a nation striving for racial unity.
And so it is little surprise that the soccer World Cup is compared by South Africans to their proudest moment, the first democratic elections.
“It’s going to be very, very beautiful,” said Gladys Gailey, a supporter of the national football team. “For us it’s like going to the polls in 1994.”
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The World Cup’s legacy for South African soccer is still to be determined but regardless of the Bafana Bafana’s performance in their opening game and beyond, the tournament will be a fitting reward for a sport that has always sought to be fully inclusive in racially divided South Africa.
Soccer was brought to South African shores in the late 19th century by British traders and missionaries. Fairly soon, the sport was segregated along racial lines, and separate football associations were formed for the white, black, Indian and colored communities.
Whites, especially the Dutch-descended Afrikaners, found rugby more appealing, and soccer was increasingly perceived as a black sport. As historian Peter Alegi wrote in “Laduma!,” a book covering the history of South African soccer, the sport’s similarities with traditional activities such as stick fighting and ritual dancing contributed to its popularity among black South Africans.
“The importance of individual athletic performance and competition in indigenous sporting traditions underpinned the later development of ways of playing football [soccer] that emphasized personal style and spectacular displays of skill,” Alegi wrote.
A rising popularity meant an increasing need for playing surfaces. Faced with hostile local governments, soccer enthusiasts had to skillfully negotiate to secure new soccer fields. Many of the freedom struggle heavyweights, including Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of the African National Congress Albert Luthuli, played an active role in the expansion of football opportunities.
While the sport allowed youngsters to display their physical prowess and adopt nicknames such as “Hitler” or “Baboon shepherd,” it offered elders prominent positions in the administrative structure of soccer clubs. The result was that the sport became a lot more organized and by the 1950s, some games attracted tens of thousands of fans despite travel restrictions put in place by the apartheid regime.
But the game — and the rest of society — remained segregated by apartheid. Eventually, South Africa faced international sanctions, and in the early 1960s FIFA, the world soccer governing body, banned South Africa from international competitions including World Cups.
Even in the darkest days of apartheid, FIFA still ruled over the most unlikely corner of South Africa. Robben Island, home to a growing number of political prisoners, saw the development of a highly organized soccer league that followed the laws of the game to the letter. The sport offered prisoners like future President Jacob Zuma an opportunity to stay fit and socialize, but it also provided them with a reason to engage prison authorities and prepared them for their subsequent dealings with the white regime.
The transition toward democracy coincided with a successful period on soccer fields for South Africa. Bafana Bafana won their first game after three decades of exclusion by beating Cameroon in 1992 in an emotionally charged game. South Africa followed up with a victory on home soil in the 1996 African Cup of Nations and qualification for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Today, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League has turned into one of the wealthiest of the continent, but South African teams have struggled on the world stage in recent years. Peter Du Toit, editor of Soccer Laduma magazine, reckons that the level of play in South Africa is inferior to what it was during the 1970s as coaching skills haven’t kept up with those in the rest of the soccer world.
“We’ve got potentially talented youngsters, but we’ve got no teachers,” said Du Toit. “Professional club owners in South Africa are shortsighted. Everyone wants a short fix, but you don’t get quick fixes with youngsters.”
Bafana Bafana are ranked 83rd in the world, and many observers outside South Africa don’t see the team advancing beyond the group stage, which would be a first in World Cup history for a hosting nation. Du Toit said South Africa will surprise many, and Gailey said she dreams of a South Africa-Brazil final.
No one is as optimistic as the ANC Youth League, though. The always vocal organization said this week that it is “convinced South Africa is destined for total victory.”