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Sport progressed from apartheid pariah to host of World Cup.
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.”