Ballad of a South African football fan

Just before the World Cup in South Africa, I returned to Johannesburg to interview the hero of the first football match in which black and white South Africans played for the same team. It was a little piece of history, forgotten after Soweto rose up exactly three months later

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2010

It was a T-shirt that first showed me the unifying powers of football, even in a country as isolated, violent and divided as 1970s South Africa. It had a skull and crossbones on the front, and the name “Orlando Pirates”. One day I wore it down to the local Spar supermarket, where it caused a sensation.

Pirates badgePirates, also known as “Bucs”, were South Africa’s leading black football club, dominating the new black professional league, but very few whites had ever seen them play. Going to a football match was not seen as an adequate reason for being in a black area. I had no idea of the effect my T-shirt would have on the black workers at the supermarket, where they were allowed to shift goods and stack shelves, but not to do anything more skilled, such as operating checkouts.

South Africa was so profoundly segregated in those days that blacks and whites went about without their eyes ever meeting, drifting past each other like ghosts. Now, in my skull-and-crossbones T-shirt, it was as though I had given these workers a secret signal, and they were seeing me clearly for the first time.

Laughing in delight, they all wanted to slap my hand or engage me in a three-stage handshake. Where had I got the T-shirt? Answer: from a black colleague at work, as a bit of a joke, though I didn’t say so. Had I been to any Bucs games? No. I was beginning to feel a tinge ashamed at proclaiming my allegiance to the club while knowing next to nothing about them, but when I wore the shirt, in the supermarket or the street, no black person I encountered took it as anything but a gesture of friendship.

They could well have been asking why I was interested in football anyway. It was the black sport; rugby and cricket were the white sports. And even among the whites sporting enthusiasm was dictated by ethnicity: rugby was the Afrikaners’ passion, while cricket mainly belonged to English-speaking South Africans like me. At my English-language boarding school we played rugby and hockey in the winter, cricket in the summer. We did not play football except among ourselves, for fun. No white school with aspirations to gentility would have a representative soccer team.

I’m not quite sure how my enthusiasm was kindled. Maybe it was my father, who had lived in Southend, east of London, until he was 15, and would still look in the paper to see how Southend United had done. As a senior member of the non-racial Liberal Party in Cape Town, he certainly immunised me against the assumptions of racial superiority that nearly all white South Africans seemed to drink in with their mothers’ milk, even English-speakers who looked down on the Afrikaners’ crass enforcement of apartheid, while reaping the benefits. It was no easier to follow foreign football than it was to see black players at home, thanks to the Calvinism and isolationism of the Afrikaner establishment. They resisted the introduction of television in South Africa until 1976, believing that the “little bioscope” would open the door to moral corruption and foreign ideas, so my family had to listen to England’s 1966 World Cup victory on a shortwave relay, straining to make out the commentary through roars of static.

But when white administrators decided to launch professional football in South Africa with the all-white National Football League (NFL) in 1959, that isolation helped to ensure its success. There were other reasons—the teams were based in the cities, where most English-Cape_Town_City_Pennantspeakers lived, as did football-loving European immigrant communities, notably the Greeks and Portuguese. I immediately became a supporter of Cape Town City, whose name did not seem contradictory to its fans. Our great local rivals were Hellenic, whose name indicated their Greek origin. Durban City, Durban United, Highlands Park of Johannesburg and the cutely named Arcadia Shepherds—Arcadia is a suburb of Pretoria—all became national names in the 1960s. Probably the most powerful factor behind the NFL taking off, however, was the sense that football belonged to non-Afrikaners, unlike rugby, which was dominated by Boers who wrestled bulls for scrummaging practice. The tactics back then of grinding opponents into submission up front, booting for touch every time, and waiting for the final few minutes to score tries seemed like a metaphor for apartheid. English names in the Springbok team were rare: there was one, a brilliant No 8 called Tommy Bedford who was a Rhodes scholar, but he criticised South Africa’s racial policies and never played another Test. Merely being a football supporter felt subversive.

Back in the supermarket I had one trump card with my new friends. I was able to mention the name of the Orlando Pirates’ greatest player, Ephraim Matsilele “Jomo” Sono. Jomo, I had been told, was given his nickname by black fans who saw him as a “burning spear” like Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya to independence in 1963. Sono was so good that he was playing for the Bucs’ senior team when he was just 15. According to my black colleagues, he was lightning-fast, able to score with either foot, and had such superb balance that opponents never knew where he was going next. Who knew, though, when I might ever get the chance to see him?

* * *

The answer, it turned out, was March 16th 1976. By then the white government had accepted that it could not con international bodies such as FIFA into regarding matches which pitted a white side against a black side, in front of a segregated crowd, as somehow multiracial. There were three of these blacks-v-whites games in 1973 and 1974, all held at the Rand Stadium, and the whites won every time, partly thanks to better training, but also because the black players were so ambivalent about the whole enterprise.

The following year the government allowed the top clubs from each league to contest a champion-of-champions  final. Once again the white team, Hellenic, defeated the black side, Kaizer Chiefs, and there was a near-riot. Such matches, it was becoming clear, simply exacerbated racial tensions, and administrators pressed for a combined team to be selected. In 1976, the same year as the first-ever boxing match between a white and a black South African, football received an unofficial go-ahead, even though such a change in rugby or cricket still seemed unthinkable. Why? Surely because boxing and football were mainly black sports: the white government didn’t care as much about them.

So, for the first time in any team sport in South Africa, a side was to be picked without regard to the colour of the players’ skin. Heading for the Rand Stadium, where these pioneers were to face an Argentine Stars XI, I didn’t know what to expect. Would the South Africans avoid humiliation? Would there be trouble with the police? And would I be able to recognise the black stars on the pitch?

I had been to Rand Stadium, which despite its modest 30,000 capacity staged every white cup final and all the “multinational” matches leading up to this game, many times before to see Cape Town City. This time, though, the atmosphere was quite different. Black spectators were pouring in from Soweto in minibuses and taxis. The crowd, though still segregated, was almost 50-50 black and white, with every seat taken and people sitting in the walkways. The sense of anticipation in the other half of the stadium was sky-high: at last their heroes, including the now 20-year-old Jomo, were going to be on the pitch with white players, as equals and not cannon fodder. It dawned on me that much more than football was at stake here. Could the team live up to those expectations?

The South African selection conformed to time-honoured stereotypes, combining black attacking flair with white defensive solidity. The players had had only two 90-minute practice sessions together. The Argentines were all experienced internationals, among them Antonio Rattin, the captain notorious for having been sent off against England at the 1966 World Cup. They had been playing together for two years, and were no pushovers.

At least one worry was dispelled as soon as the match kicked off. Every time Jomo Sono got the ball, there would be a great roar from the black section of the crowd. There was going to be no problem identifying him, although another star whom I was just learning about, Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, was also showing magical skills. Even younger than Jomo, he was already playing in the North American Soccer League, where he spent 11 seasons, and appearing for his home side, Kaizer Chiefs, when he could. But the South Africans, in their green shirts with gold collars, were still getting used to each other, and their early attacks broke down. Some of the early hysteria faded, giving way to fear that the Argentine team was getting on top.

I can’t remember whether Jomo or Ace scored the first goal, but it transformed the night. Would the players celebrate as they normally did, or would they be constrained by their racial separateness? Black and white, they behaved as spontaneously as footballers anywhere, hugging in delight — routine the world over, but at that time, in that place, extraordinary. All at once, the South Africans began playing with a higher purpose, and the Argentines were swept aside. The South African tactics were simple: give the ball to Jomo Sono. He scored four goals and South Africa won 5-0.

As a young white who yearned for the barriers of apartheid to be demolished, I was overwhelmed. For the first time in my life in South Africa, white and black people were hoarse with mutual joy, chanting “Jo-mo! Jo-mo!” All the restrictions and suspicions of South African life were forgotten for a couple of hours; instead we saw what was possible when everybody had a common purpose. But look at that date again. It was exactly three months before June 16th 1976, when police opened fire on black students in Soweto — another event I witnessed — and an uprising began that did not cease until Nelson Mandela was free. Clint Eastwood’s recent film “Invictus” suggests that the 1995 rugby World Cup final was the game that united black and white South Africans, but at the Rand Stadium on that March night we glimpsed what took the best part of two more decades to come to pass. Never was a game more beautiful: it still chokes me up to think of it.

* * *

“That day I was fired up,” Jomo tells me nearly 34 years later. “It was the only way for me to get out of the ghetto, and I was determined to get out.” It worked. Thanks to that performance, by 1977 he was playing alongside Pele and Franz Beckenbauer for the New York Cosmos, one of the most glamorous football teams ever assembled. I left for England the same year, unwilling to bring up my children under apartheid.

That year too the white football league collapsed, partly because games like the Rand Stadium triumph exposed the poverty of segregated football, but mainly because of competition from the new television service. Roy Matthews, who played for Charlton in the English First Division before signing for Arcadia Shepherds in 1967, told me the racial divisions were already breaking down. “We found out that there were good teams in Pretoria’s black townships, such as Atteridgeville and Mamelodi Sundowns,” he said. “Soon we were playing unofficial matches against them. Black players also joined Arcadia, but we couldn’t put them in the teams then. We had the first black player in the old NFL, Vincent Julius. When we brought him on for the first time, against Highlands Park, one of the few Afrikaner players in the league, Hennie Joubert, told him mockingly: ‘You’d better play well for the white baas.’ After he scored the only goal of the game, Vincent said, equally mockingly, that he was just doing what the white baas told him to do.”

A muddled transition period followed as some formerly white clubs joined one league, others another, but the shift in power was never clearer than when Jomo Sono, returning after six seasons in the North American Soccer League, used his earnings to buy the franchise for Highlands Park. The club was once the Manchester United of white football — they expected to win honours every season, and were loathed by fans of other teams because they usually did. “It was a highly symbolic purchase in an era when blacks were subjugated by the apartheid system, and Sono has been a folk hero ever since, destroying a massive white institution with the flick of a cheque book,” says the FIFA website, with more than a hint of hyperbole.

By the mid-1980s Jomo’s team, now renamed Jomo Cosmos, were playing in a fully non-racial league. It was extraordinary at a time when the apartheid government had troops in the townships, death squads killing opponents, and special forces going into neighbouring countries to attack the African National Congress in exile. But South African football remained in complete isolation until 1992, when FIFA reversed the country’s expulsion, imposed in 1976.

For the first time South African teams could test themselves against the rest of the world, and the “Rainbow Nation” euphoria that accompanied Nelson Mandela’s rise to power seemed to embrace its footballers as well. The national team, known as Bafana Bafana (“The Boys”), played their first-ever official international, beating Cameroon 1-0, and Orlando Pirates won the African club championship. In 1996 South Africa hosted the Africa Cup of Nations, with Jomo Sono taking his place on the coaching team. When they lifted the cup, it meant more to most South Africans than winning the rugby World Cup the year before.

South Africa’s footballers reached the World Cup finals in France in 1998 and again four years later in South Korea and Japan. Although on both occasions they failed to make it beyond the group stage, their success lent credibility to South Africa’s ultimate football dream — to be the first African nation to host the World Cup.

The decision on the staging of the 2006 finals was made in 2000 and, despite having a global giant on their side in Mandela, South Africa lost out by one vote to Germany. But once FIFA decided that the finals would go to Africa in 2010, the South Africans were favourites from the start, and their victory was confirmed in 2004. In June the South African people will at last see the best players in the world come to their country to play their favourite sport.

* * *

Rand Stadium has been completely rebuilt as a practice ground for the World Cup, though it retains its modest size and original scoreboard, which is nearly 60 years old and therefore a piece of history in demolition-happy Johannesburg. The new main stand carries a banner, “Welcome to the home of Jomo Cosmos”: after many moves, the team is now based at the scene of one of its owner and coach’s greatest triumphs. A corpulent 55-year-old in a billowing mauve and blue Mandela-style shirt and baseball cap, Jomo leans against the side of the coaches’ dug-out as Cosmos, who are bottom of the Premier Soccer League (PSL), play out a goalless draw against their fellow strugglers Maritzburg.

Afterwards the football writers close in on the coach, who gives the usual answers: “We played well, I’m happy”…“We can still escape relegation”…“We are just looking ahead to the next game.” Although he now cultivates an unhurried air at odds with his whippet-like hyper-activity on the field, there is still something boyish about Jomo. His mouth, fringed by a droopy 1970s moustache, keeps breaking into a huge smile, but his eyes are deep-set and wary, the eyes of a boy brought up in extreme poverty. His father, also a famous footballer, was killed at 27 in a motor accident, his mother deserted him, and he had to hawk goods in the street to support himself and his grandparents.

When we sit down the next day, it is a long way from Rand Stadium, which is south of the centre of the city, among the mine dumps and blue-collar suburbs. These days Jomo Sono is a wealthy man who lives near Nelson Mandela in Houghton, Johannesburg’s grandest old suburb. We meet at his informal base, a smart hotel in Sandton, which has become the financial capital of South Africa since the banks and the stock exchange fled north from the crime-ridden city centre. But despite appearances, he is a maverick, the only big figure within South African football willing to say what many others think: that a small, self-interested clique has far too much power, to the detriment of Bafana Bafana, which suffers from continual disputes over coaching and selection.

Jomo was a “bid ambassador” for the World Cup, but the victory in securing the tournament could well be Pyrrhic. Since winning in 1996, South Africa have performed progressively worse at each African Cup of Nations, losing in the final, semi-finals, quarter-finals and so on, until this year they failed to qualify at all. Bafana Bafana also missed out on the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and bookmakers expect the team to finish bottom of their group this time, although optimists point out that they have exactly the same opponents — France, Mexico and Uruguay — that England had as hosts in 1966.

“We will compete,” Jomo insists. Wearing an eye-searing houndstooth shirt in white, black and red, he is eating a hasty self-assembled lunch beside the hotel pool, consisting of cold meat, cheese slices and crackers. He can’t resist pointing out that it is one thing for South Africa to beat everyone at rugby or cricket, another thing in football. “It’s the biggest sport in the world. It’s 32 countries [in the finals alone]. Rugby, how many countries?” Though he is reluctant to talk about South Africa’s unhappy past, muttering “I have always tried to avoid politics,” he agrees that in the apartheid era, football was one of the few ways black South Africans could express their identity. Now that they are free, “there is less passion”. During the World Cup, he says, “there will be excitement here. The stadiums will be full.” But he is not alone in hoping that the arrival of the world’s best teams will restore some of the lost fervour at home.

South African fans can certainly be relied upon to make some noise: their jarring, droning vuvuzela plastic horns drew complaints from several other nations at the Confederations Cup last year. How many of them are likely to be white, I ask Jomo. “To be honest, white people don’t support football,” he says. “They believe that soccer in South Africa is a black man’s sport. There are very few white players around.” Later he says that white players drifted away “because there was too much politics. They were not always made to feel welcome.” A country can change its entire system of government and go from an international pariah to an inspiration, but shifting the ingrained sporting tastes of its tribes is another matter.

Bottom of the league and the only team without a sponsor, Jomo Cosmos desperately need stimulus from somewhere. They have spent the past few years yo-yoing between relegation and promotion. The team came back up this season and are “just trying to hang on”, according to the boss, who cheerfully acknowledges he is to blame. “I run my outfit as a development. I make players and sell them. That’s my strength.” That means his club is always going to be up against it? “Yup.” After a moment he adds: “I’m a wheeler-dealer… a trader.”

Rather than trophies, Jomo likes to point to the 40 players he coached who have made it abroad, including the Zimbabwean Benjani Mwaruwari, who recently joined Sunderland from Manchester City, and Bafana Bafana’s captain, Aaron Mokoena, who has played for Blackburn and Portsmouth. Just then he sees a young man lounging by the pool and calls him over. “This is Blackie. He was my top player, this one. Now he’s at Supersport [United, PSL winners the past two seasons]. I’m waiting for them to sell him, then I’m going to make money.” He turns to Blackie. “When are they selling you?” Blackie says Supersport have exercised an option to keep him another year. “You should have gone to Sundowns,” Jomo tells his former protégé, who is grinning bashfully. “I’ll still have to sell a couple of players.”

I’d heard from others that Jomo’s own son, 17-year-old Matsilele junior, could be an exceptional footballer; told this, his father cannot resist promoting him. “I’m trying to get him to Arsenal as soon as possible. He’s unbelievable: the pace! He’s got balance! He’s also a top rugby player at school.” You wonder how South Africa will ever reach the heights on the football field again if the highest ambition of its top talent is to go and play abroad.

It is time for Jomo to go. His team have set up a closed training camp to plot a way out of relegation, but it’s a long way from Sandton, and he has to be home the same night. Even more than when he is wheeling and dealing, you sense, he is happiest on the training pitch, and he confirms it. “I love to see a kid develop,” he says as he stands up. “I never had that opportunity—I was thrown into the deep end.”

I know: I was there, and saw him walk on water. If only South Africa had a player like him now.