Opinionista Paul Berkowitz 23 January 2013

Phillip has left the building

So this is Afcon 2013. The tournament was awarded to South Africa in an unconventional and controversial fashion, but we promised we could pull it off. Going by the events of Saturday night, we’ve got our work cut out for us both on and off the field.

The opening match of the tournament was unlikely to be the curtain-raiser that loyal fans would have wanted. South African soccer is not so “irie” at the moment, between the match-fixing by South African Football Association (Safa) insiders and the detumescence of Bafana Bafana since the 2010 World Cup. Politicians and sports administrators urged patriotism and caution in the same breath – a curious double act of raising hopes and managing expectations at the same time.

It’s also been a bumpy 15-month journey from the confirmation that South Africa and Libya were to switch hosting dates up to the opening ceremony and first games on 19 January. The very awarding of the tournament to South Africa was criticised by Nigeria. Some cities were reluctant to play host without specific guarantees from the national government to underwrite some of the costs.

Overall, the general mood of the public has been more apprehension than anticipation. There are fewer rides being pimped with the flags and assorted paraphernalia of 2010. Every branch that Bafana Bafana has hit over the last two years on the way down the ranking tree has been felt by fans. To Stephen Mulholland, homosexuality might still be the love that dare not speak its name, but for most of us it is more socially unacceptable to be an enthusiastic supporter of the national team.

Still, I bought my tickets and took my chance on Saturday evening. I love The Stadium Formerly Known As Soccer City and the spectacle of a big game there. I love taking the train from Park Station and arriving a few hundred metres from my seat. Unfortunately a number of inconveniences and disappointments (mostly minor) drained a good share of the fun and adventure from the evening.

The fun started with the ticketing system. The online purchase of tickets is straightforward and easy (at www.eqtickets.com), the collection of said tickets is a bit more tricky. Certain Spar outlets will process your collection, but the one I went to (in Lyndhurst) informed me regretfully that their ticket-processing machine did not arrive. The tickets were processed without incident at the Alexandra Spar, but it’s probably best to phone ahead.

The next problem was confirming transport to and from the stadium. It was difficult to uncover information from Prasa or Metrorail, but eventually we were told that the first train back from the stadium only departed at 23:30.This would have meant getting home after midnight, altering the equation in favour of the Rea Vaya park-and-ride system. This was still a reasonable second prize, at least on the outward leg of the trip (but more on that later).

By the time our party arrived at Constitution Hill it was bucketing down, and we were grateful that our park-and-ride ticket privileged us in the queue; the line for carless passengers stretched up the hill. The news was doing the rounds that umbrellas would not be allowed into the stadium. The vendors by the busses were doing a roaring trade in plastic ponchos but my fiancée was having none of it. Gripping her small umbrella tightly, she vowed to take the fight to the organisers.

‘What do you think the score will be?’ asked the man next to me on the bus. I furrowed my brow and did the calculus of the amateur fan. I’d seen Bafana Bafana take on the Cape Verde team before, the first time the two countries played each other, at the same venue, in 2004. The stadium (pre-calabash days) was a quarter full, fewer than 20,000 people. It was a bright, June afternoon.

South Africa won the match 2-1 and I remember feeling underwhelmed by their performance against a tiny island nation with fewer people than Soweto (no offence intended, Cape Verde). South African soccer wasn’t having a great time of it. The match was part of the 2006 World Cup (and Afcon) qualifying process, and although we beat Cape Verde 2-1 again on the away leg we ended third in the group, below Ghana and the DRC. Ah, the glory of the Baxter-Dumitru years. I don’t miss them either.

Still, I am a fan of Gordon Igesund. I support Safa’s appointment of him to coach the national team. If he could turn around Swallows then he could turn around Bafana Bafana. Pimp My Side, Coach.

‘I dunno… two-nil, three-nil, maybe one-nil?’ I smiled weakly at my neighbour trying to pass off my vagueness as enigmatic. He nodded slowly, and we went back to monitoring the Proteas-New Zealand game on our phones.

As the stadium came into view the mood in the bus lifted and the excited fingers of mothers and children conducted the strobe orchestra of cellphone cameras. There is no better place to watch soccer than Soccer City. It must not be dressed in sackcloth, in the sponsors’ colours, and referred to as the National Stadium. It is the sacred fruit of the soccer tree, the secret burial ground of the vuvuzela-beast, the mothership that will take the faithful to a better universe on the day of the Final Cup Final.

Getting into the stadium, however, meant abandoning one’s umbrella, or arguing with the security detail. For my fiancée it was never in doubt which path would be taken.

“You can’t take the umbrella in.”  “Can I fetch it after the match? Will you still be here?” “I don’t know.” “You can’t guarantee that I’ll get the umbrella back after the match? Then you are confiscating my property. Not even the police have the right to randomly confiscate property.”

She went on for a minute or two, bludgeoning the poor man with the Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Act until he conceded and allowed her to sweep through the checkpoint without having to add her umbrella to the sad wet pile at his feet. I followed in her wake, nodding sympathetically at him.

Once inside, the most pressing problem was food and drink. For some unfathomable reason fewer than half of the vendor spots were open for business despite the capacity crowd expected for the match. Apart from two makeshift beer gardens and a handful of hardworking people cooking pap, wors and chops (and flogging the sponsors’ products) that was it.

We wisely opted to buy our first rounds of beer early in the evening before the inevitable bottleneck in the lubrication factory. Despite the presence of a few high tables placed by the two bars, patrons were not allowed to leave the bar itself with any cans, not even to pour their drinks a few metres away. While the bartenders methodically poured every can, the backlogs at the two bars grew quickly.

It is never a good recipe to mix hundreds of thirsty fans (almost all male) with a poorly-managed distribution system. People left the bar in disgust after waiting for more than 20 minutes. A rousing chant of “We want beer!” made its way up and down the lines and eventually the SAPS made themselves present behind the bar and told everyone to disperse sans beer.

The bars were shuttered for an hour until the opening match started, probably in the vain hope of staggering the public’s demand for booze. With only two (possibly four) bars in operation to serve a crowd of 70,000 this was never a realistic strategy. The sponsor had evidently taken notes from the Eskom Book of Economics and gone into full load-shedding mode.

There were similar problems with food; long queues, few vendors, understaffing at each station and staff unable to help us. After waiting for more than half an hour to make it to the front of the queue we were informed that the chocolate slab and the slap chips (reasonably priced) were not being sold, despite being advertised on the shiny, CAF-monogrammed menu. Would we like a small packet of Lays for R25?

We would not. We were cold and hungry and had missed the kick-off while waiting 30 minutes for the dubious honour of being price-gouged. We returned to the soccer.

There is not much to say about the game itself, except to point out that this was the first game between the two countries that South Africa had not won. The 0-0 final score was an accurate reflection of a game in which no initiative or hunger was evident from the hosts. Few chances were created and fewer were taken.

Maybe Safa’s muthi is stronger than Igesund’s muthi, or maybe the players hadn’t been paid on time again. It was hard for the fans in the stadium to discern why the team played such conservative, low-percentage soccer in what should have been their easiest game, but they all knew crap soccer when they saw it. More than a few fans voiced their displeasure with Safa and the coach in the most colourful language. We all laughed the laugh of those stuck in the trenches together.

The trip back on the bus was uneventful for most of us, although my fiancée had another fun diversion when she boarded a different bus. After making a few stops on the way, the driver of her bus declared the Noord taxi rank the final stop and dumped the remaining passengers there despite their loud and varied protests. My fiancée helped two foreign tourists back to Constitution Hill as part of her civic volunteer outreach programme.

During the 2009 Confederations Cup we had our teething problems: I remember one of the first games at Ellis Park where the bus shuttle system didn’t seem to have a proper route or schedule and the SAPS officers didn’t lift a finger to direct the flow of people and vehicles after the match. These breaks in service were all fixed during the 2010 matches so it’s a mystery why there was such a regression on Saturday.

I don’t pretend to know what is happening behind the scenes with the administrators and promoters of the tournament. There have been accusations that the games haven’t been marketed sufficiently and that security personnel are being paid less than they receive for domestic PSL matches. Despite the promises from the minister of sport, there is much room for improvement

The impression made upon our little party was that corners have been cut and communication has been poor. There were far too few boots on the ground to meet the needs of the event: not enough security at the gates and bars, too few vendors to serve the fans, a dearth of marshals at the bus stations to direct people and to issue tickets.

Are we (“we” being South Africans and the rest of the continent) not good enough for the five-star treatment that was dished out in 2010 for the overseas fans?

I have my tickets for the final in a few weeks’ time. I’ll be taking my family to the match, with great anticipation of a first-class sporting spectacle on the pitch. I really, really hope that there is a similar level of passion and professionalism off the field too. I don’t want to write another letter to the minister asking him to explain himself. DM


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