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South African soccer comes a long way

Sport progressed from apartheid pariah to host of World Cup.

South African boys play soccer
South African boys horseplay after playing soccer at the sports center of the Alexandra stadium in central Johannesburg, June 4, 2010. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

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.

Read all of GlobalPost's World Cup 2010 coverage

“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.”

Read more GlobalPost World Cup Coverage

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.