20 May 2004
One of the first gifts that democracy brought South Africa was its first truly representative national soccer team. That team’s nickname soon became known worldwide when Bafana Bafana – “The Boys” – captured the African Cup of Nations on home soil in 1996.
It was a great achievement, and as the entire country had celebrated South Africa’s Rugby World Cup triumph the year before, so the entire country celebrated the success of the national soccer side.
The most popular game in the country had for so long belonged to its quiet majority; democracy brought its joys to the whole population.
The fierce traditional rivalry of Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs – truly one of the biggest derby matches in the world – became something for all to share in.
Players and their amazing nicknames became known everywhere: men like Thomas “Who’s Fooling Who” Hlongwane, “Professor” Ngubane, Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, and Nelson “Teenage” Dladla.
Greater exposure for South African soccer meant greater interest from sponsors and better support for the game, and that helped improve the country’s standard of play. Early on, though, it was a steep learning curve as the price of isolation was shown in a number of defeats, some of them big, against opponents many supporters would have expected South Africa to beat.
One of the things that open society brought to previously advantaged white South Africans was the incredible passion black people had for soccer. It showed in their support for their favourite teams, in the astounding skills they displayed while fooling around with a soccer ball about.
It helped humanise black people in the minds of many whites brought up on a regular diet of apartheid propaganda.
In the past, some of the country’s greatest players had had to make their mark far away from home, with little known about their exploits until much later: players such as Steve Mokone, Pule Ntsoelengoe, Jomo Sono and Kaizer Motaung.
Sono and Motaung returned to start clubs that remain pillars of the present Premier Soccer League in South Africa: Jomo Cosmos (named after the New York Cosmos for whom Sono played), and Kaizer Chiefs, the most popular soccer team in South Africa.
Making it in Europe
Today, the opportunity exists for any outstanding soccer player to make his mark on the rich playing fields of Europe. England is a popular destination, but SA’s soccer exports have also made their mark in Germany, Spain, Portugal and Russia.
A year before Bafana Bafana’s success in the 1996 African Cup of Nations, Orlando Pirates showed what the addition of South Africa to the international ranks meant when they broke North Africa’s stranglehold on African club competition.
The Buccaneers became the first club south of the equator to win the African Club of Champions competition – at their first attempt – and followed that up with the African Super Cup in 1996.
In recent years, players like Lucas Radebe (Leeds United), Benni McCarthy (Porto), Shaun Bartlett (Charlton Athletic), Mark Fish (Charlton Athletic), Mbulelo Mabizela (Tottenham Hotspur) and Steven Pienaar (Ajax Amsterdam) have achieved success in Europe, while Russia has almost become a second home for South African players.