22 June 2009
As anyone watching South Africa in action at the Fifa Confederations Cup has surely noticed, whenever the ball finds its way to towering Bafana Bafana defender Matthew Booth, an unusual cry goes up around the stands.
To the uninitiated it might sound like the thousands of home fans are registering their displeasure at the Mamelodi Sundowns defender. After all, Booth would not be the first player to be on the receiving end of catcalls from his own fans.
But as millions of spectators around the world discovered last week, the noise that greets his every intervention are not boos, but supporting cries of “Booooth!”.
What was perplexing viewers even more was the fact that the man in question barely put a foot wrong in his side’s opening two games, prompting them to ask why fans would boo one of their own players when he was performing so well.
It was a riddle that even South Africa coach Joel Santana had to ponder after he took over the job. “The first time I heard the shouts in the stadium, I just couldn’t understand what was going on,” the Brazilian said. “I was under the impression that the fans loved Matthew, but there they were seemingly booing him for no apparent reason.”
But as the smiling Booth explained to Fifa.com, peculiar cries of encouragement are something of a tradition among football fans in the Rainbow Nation.
“When Mark Fish played for Bafana Bafana, it was the same. The fans shouted ‘Fiiish! Fiiish!’, and it sounded like they were having a go at him. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain to foreigners that there’s nothing wrong, that people love me really.”
And the dependable defender is not wrong, receiving the kind of adulation normally reserved for goalscorers and more creative players.
“I think it’s got something to do with my commitment,” he continues. “The fans can see that I take games seriously. Or maybe it’s just because I look like a nice guy to them! I don’t know. You’d have to ask them.”
A veteran of seven seasons in Russia before returning home, Booth is hoping to take part in his first Fifa World Cup finals next year. He came agonisingly close to making an appearance at Korea/Japan 2002, suffering a kee injury during a training session at the squad’s pre-tournament camp in Hong Kong just 10 days before the opening game.
“That was very tough to take,” he recalls. “It was the only time I’ve ever had surgery in my career, and it wasn’t even that serious. It just came at the worst possible time.
“That’s why I want to try and convince Joel Santana with my performances at the Confederations Cup and make sure of a place for 2010. It would mean so much to me.”