Sunday 17 December 2017

Bafana bridging sporting and social divisions

Daniel McDonnell watches the hosts in a bar full of fans more accustomed to rugby

IT was the day that the dream was revived, only to die again. The Bafana Bafana's finest hour, followed by a sobering 30 minutes.

When the players of South Africa headed to the dressing-room at the interval with a two-goal cushion, halfway to achieving the impossible, you wondered if one Alan Brown was enjoying it.

Alan had a text message printed in 'The Citizen' newspaper yesterday morning, featuring in an often disturbing section where readers are asked to SMS their thoughts. The subject was Matthew Booth, the only white member of South Africa's 23-man finals squad.

"Am I the only one who has noticed that Matthew Booth, who looks as out of place as a square peg in a round hole, will probably not get to touch a ball during the World Cup," wrote Mr Brown. "Sad that out of a population of over three million whites, no one is good enough for Bafana Bafana! Fortunately, the same can't be said for cricket and rugby."

They use the Afrikaan word 'Eish' here when they are uttering exasperation or disbelief.

It was a sentiment that was muttered persistently during the first half of the remarkable game with France which, at least, ensured that the hosts departed the competition with pride intact.

"Whatever happens today, we must celebrate the World Cup tomorrow," was the message on the front of 'The Times' newspaper, tackling the fear that the elimination of the host nation would kill the buzz brought about by this tournament.

Johannesburg was quieter yesterday, in the build-up to this encounter. Locals going about their business in the hours before the game found the city easier to negotiate than before the earlier group encounters with Mexico and Uruguay, which brought everywhere to a standstill. Employers were finding that absenteeism wasn't such a problem for this 4pm kick-off.

Before the game, the atmosphere was relatively sedate in Giles bar and restaurant in Craighall Park, a plush suburb in northern Johannesburg. Most foreign media visitors have been encouraged to watch a Bafana Bafana game in Soweto, or in the townships where the real body of support for the game in this country is. Few have been told to go to places like Giles.

The crowd is mixed. Mixed in the sense that there are white people wearing Bafana Bafana jerseys, and white people dressed in civvies. Initially, the latter group aren't paying too much heed to the screens. The only non-white people in the house are working behind the bar or busily delivering food to a private party.

Little attention is paid to the pre-match punditry or the national anthems. A local character, decked in yellow with some sort of crown on his head, produces a vuvuzela only to be quickly admonished. Vuvuzelas are banned here.

There is a slight feeling of indifference. And then the game comes along and changes everything. Bongani Khumala's goal is raucously cheered, and the youngish group who talked their way through the anthems order in a round of tequilas. Yoann Gourcuff's dismissal raises the volume and, after Katlego Mphela doubles the advantage, the middle-aged men who started off with their backs to the screen turn around and start watching.

They begin to discuss the permutations when news filters through that Uruguay are ahead against Mexico. Two further goals without reply would put Carlos Alberto Parreira's side through against all the odds.


The doors spill open as numbers pile in. Two black men stop outside the window and peer through to get a look at the screen, without attempting to come in.

Almost everyone is enthralled. Almost. There is one man, well into his sixties, revelling in winding up his companions by jeering every Bafana error. When Florent Malouda reduces the deficit and removes the possibility of a fairytale ending, he isn't looking. Instead, when the penny drops, he shouts 'oh no' sarcastically, and looks for somebody to share in the joke.

On this evening, however, he is in the minority, drastically misjudging the mood of those around. This may be rugby territory -- the cry of 'come on, we've only got 10 more minutes' from one excited woman when the clock struck the 70-minute mark was telling -- but the rousing nature of this encounter managed to keep their interest until the very end.

A late, crude challenge from Steven Pienaar on Gael Clichy went down a treat, while the chorus of howls at a Thierry Henry handball proved that they're not completely oblivious to football current affairs.

At the final whistle, there was solemn silence and then respectful applause. "I enjoyed that," exclaimed one lady, the sentence laced with surprise. The lads from behind the bar fetched her companion a red wine.

This complicated place will never be united behind one sport -- a cursory scan at the letters page confirms that -- but, for a short period yesterday, the Bafana Bafana struck a chord that a nation could understand. Apart from those who simply don't want to hear.

Irish Independent

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