Field of shattered dreams
Why I won't be following my father's example and taking my children to the soccer
The wind howled that day. So much, in fact, that the goalkeeper facing into it could only pass on the ground for fear of the ball blowing back over his head. The crowd laughed as strong gusts of wind diverted easy passes all over the place and made professional footballers look like rank amateurs.
That crowd – some 10,000 strong at capacity – was largely clad in the yellow and black Umtata Bushbucks kit and was packed into the Independence Stadium in what is now (correctly) spelled Mthatha, the town I grew up in.
It was my first live soccer match, and my late dad had taken me.I don’t remember the date, but I was in primary school, meaning it was a Saturday in the mid-1990s, probably around 1996 – but it could have been earlier. I don’t remember the result. And I don’t remember if I wore my yellow Umtata Primary School shirt, although given my dad’s love of sport – and because we didn’t really want to be aligned to the opposition – he probably would have encouraged me to.
What I do remember is the atmosphere. Race dynamics being what they were in the Transkei at the time, my dad and I were the only white people in that crowd, but we didn’t feel like outsiders. In fact, one fan, an older man who, if my pre-teen memory serves me correctly, had a thick moustache, offered me his Bushbucks shirt to wear. It was too big, and in that wind it made me look something like a sail. I took it off and gave it back. The man laughed, said something in Xhosa involving the word mlungu to his mates, patted me on the back and went back to watching the game. He smelled like beer.We left slightly early, probably because of the weather, maybe because the wind made the soccer quite crap, maybe because I got bored, or maybe for some other reason. But I left smiling.
I never told my dad this, and I regret it deeply, but that was one of the best days I can remember. I never felt threatened, never felt unwelcomed, never felt like anything bad would happen. I was a kid, with my dad, watching a sport I’ve grown to love over the years.
Fast forward 20-ish years to Saturday at the Moses Mabhida Stadium. The scenes that played out as Kaizer Chiefs fans rioted were gut-wrenching. Seeing that security guard being so savagely set upon made my heart sink. Seeing those non-hooligan fans – let’s not forget them, because they were in the majority – run for safety left me shaken. I was ashamed to be a Kaizer Chiefs fan.I have a love affair with Moses Mabhida Stadium. I’ve watched dozens of games there. I’ve witnessed Chiefs win a cup final, Spain lose to Switzerland in a World Cup fixture, watched training sessions, and even wrote the first ever story about Durban getting a new stadium while I was a junior reporter at a Durban daily newspaper. I’ve jumped off the arch and swung suspended over the top of the hallowed turf.
I love that stadium; and it was somewhere I had hoped I would, one day, take my children to so that I could recreate that experience I had with my dad all those years ago at the much less state-of-the-art Independence Stadium.
But after seeing what I saw on Saturday … I don’t know if I’d take my little girl there. At least not for a while – and mostly because this is not the first, and likely won’t be the last, time that something like this happens at a football game.
The Premier Soccer League, the various clubs, the police, private security, stadium management across the country and government need to do something. They need to be braver and bolder. They need to act faster and with more force. They need to be more harsh towards offenders.
For if they they fail to do so, fewer parents will take their kids to matches. And that will be nothing less than a travesty.