You Never Walk Alone

It's no accident that so many South Africans watch and support English Premier League football teams.

Pickup game, Cape Town. 2003. Image by author.

I grew up in Ottery, a medium sized Coloured township (or “scheme”) about 30km outside central Cape Town. A mix of row houses and drab apartment blocks, Ottery was one of the many dormitory-like townships, built mostly during the 1970s, to which the Apartheid regime had forcefully removed the bulk of the city’s black (coloured and African) working class populations.

My relationship with football was largely shaped by that time.

Key to my relationship with football was of course South Africa’s mass media—whether its racially defined print media or its state-dominated television media. Though by the late 1980s, “alternative” newspapers like South, Grassroots and The Weekly Mail broadened the media landscape—and improved coverage of local football—for much of the 1980s, you got your football news from the racial editions (the main paper for whites and “Extra” editions for blacks) of the English and Afrikaans mainstream press. South African broadcasting was a state monopoly and though a private cable television service came into being in 1986 it did not broadcast any news, or any news about black sports.

My high school, Lotus Secondary, was built next to a large collection of working class, governed-owned apartment blocks. Much of what passed for club football in my neighborhood were played on the school’s fields.

When I was in my early teens, I used to sneak out of the house on Sunday afternoons to go watch these “Sunday league” matches. I always ensured that my father—a fervently religious former alcoholic who forbid any contact with non-believers, and this included footballers—would not catch me.  After all, the devil might get you at the football pitch.

My father also associated football with gangsterism. In this, he was partly right.

A local gang, the Yuru Cats (read: Euro Cats), controlled the flatse, as the apartment blocks were known in colloquial Afrikaans. The Yuru Cats, led by a classmate of mine, were feuding with the Mongrels, another gang, who controlled another set of apartment blocks—known as “Chicago”—on the other side of a dirty canal and a large empty field bordering the school. At stake was control of the lucrative drug trade—mainly dagga (marijuana) and Mandrax. The Mongrels were the original “B13s”—a gang that originated in the by then already bulldozed tenements of District Six. Bobby Mongrel—the gang’s leader who had founded the gang—lived in Chicago.

Most of the men and older teenage boys I knew lived for these Sunday league games. The rest of the week was spent on construction sites, factory floors or looking for work. More than that, the winners of tournaments had bragging rights for the rest of the week. Years later– when I had moved onto the University of Cape Town – I often ran into some of these Sunday League legends. Often by then some of them were either broken by drugs, were recruited into the drug trade, had ended up in prison or were unemployed, or had joined the ranks of men now with jobs and family responsi- bilities. Then the only thing you still talked about was when they dribbled past three or four opposing defenders – or in exaggerated form, a whole team – and scored goals like John Barnes.

Normally at these games spectators stood on the sidelines. Penalty shootouts were an exception. Then the six-yard box – usually the territory of the goalkeeper – was turned into a mini-field as spectators closed in to watch the final conclusion of a game. Crowding the goal, screaming obscenities at the goalkeeper, while the penalty-taker could feel the breath of spectators on his neck. If he missed or scored, he would hear about it for the rest of his life.

It soon became clear that I was better at watching than playing football, something I had to make peace with over time. In fact, I did play intramurals and later played on various campuses, but I was slightly better as a rugby forward.

Outside of the Sunday leagues, there was the Federation Professional League (FPL). This was the professional league attached to the South African Council on Sports (they also organized school sports in Coloured schools in Cape Town).3 Most of us knew the sports council by its acronym, SACOS. In the complicated labyrinth of South African resistance politics, SACOS lived by the creed: ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society’. I know why they insisted on this demand. But they wanted to run a professional league. The league’s politics meant the FPL was blacklisted by corporate sponsors – who were generally unsympathetic to Apartheid’s victims – and by the state broadcaster, the SABC. The SABC, which had a monopoly on radio and television, slavishly toed the government line.4 That league’s golden period coincided with my teens, but as a result I have never seen any television footage or heard audio commentary of that league.

So FPL teams and players only lived on the field or the retelling of game action by other boys who had gone to games – either accompanying their fathers or with their permission. I had to experience the FPL through the sports pages of the ‘Extra’ editions. Here you would follow the exploits and goal-scoring feats of players like Boebie Solomons (who later coached in South Africa’s Premier Soccer League) and the legendary Duncan Crowie, who played for local club Santos. Santos dominated the FPL during the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Crowie – who played one game for South Africa’s national team after the end of Apartheid – had a try-out with Chelsea in England, but by then Crowie was already past his prime.

Santos was not my club. How could they be as I had never seen them play and anyway they were from Heideveld, a township a few taxi rides away. I finally saw Santos and Duncan Crowie – by then playing with his brother, Desmond – in a game against South African super club, Kaizer Chiefs, and their star, Doctor Khumalo, live at Athlone Stadium, after the release of Nelson Mandela around 1991 or so. (I wished I had seen them earlier. Instead, when later a ‘non-racial’ professional football body was organized, I decided to support a different Cape Town club.)

Then there were, of course, the local SACOS amateur leagues. This was a Saturday ritual for some of my friends whose parents could afford the club dues. Sometimes on weeknights they’d go and play ‘knockout’ Cup games during the cold, wet, Cape Town winters. Games were held at William Herbert Sports Ground in the middle-class Coloured section of the closest commercial centre, Wynberg, a suburb about a 10-kilometer bus or minibus taxi ride away from my house. I occasionally made the trip myself to watch games and support my friends. There I watched the football of clubs like Devonshire Rovers since many of my classmates played for this perennially under-achieving team. Another important team was Battswood, a club that moved up to the lower echelons of the professional leagues and had excellent players like Roger Links and later Mark Williams, who scored both goals for South Africa in the victorious African Nations Cup Final in 1996 …

Finally, there was televised football on state television’s TV2. The television station started in 1983 for ‘Africans’. South Africa only had one television channel, TV1, from 1976, when television was first introduced in South Africa – after much trepidation about its corrupting influences from Apartheid’s rulers – until 1983. This station essentially catered to the country’s white minority. When it came to sports, TV1 was reserved for rugby, tennis, cricket, golf, motor sports and bowls (what some people call lawn bowling). If football was shown, it was the Cup Final games of the British, mainly the English, professional football association, or later highlight packages of league games.

In 1983, the SABC launched a second channel – dedicated to black viewers. This channel, which regionally split as TV2 and TV3, broadcast mainly in the most popular black languages: Zulu and Sotho. In most of its programming black people were usually depicted in rural, pastoral surroundings, or playing ‘traditional’ music. The government and the SABC wanted to maintain a certain image of black people. Like with TV1, the SABC ensured that the channel vigorously police the bound- aries of ‘races’. In addition, black people had to be portrayed as rural and tradi- tional and as citizens of one of ten ‘homelands’. This was at odds with black’s people reality – whether as urban subjects or as migrant labourers oscillating between town and countryside. It also overlooked the inextricably connected rela- tionship between the homelands and ‘white South Africa’. Increasingly, the SABC bosses faced pressure from ‘reformers’ in the ruling party, as well as elements in business, and lobbying from black sports officials to show black people’s sports, especially football. And it was on TV2 and TV3 which began to broadcast sports, where the SABC showed slippages in how it depicted black people. For example, the presence of a small group of white players and coaches showed mixing; blacks were shown running a professional sports league and doing things associated only with white people.

This was the football of the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), out of which later came the National Soccer League (NSL). Most of the clubs were from the black townships around Johannesburg, the industrial heartland of South Africa. The league, unlike the FPL, enjoyed blanket coverage in the major black newspapers and on state-owned black language radio stations. Its players were mini-celebrities. That it featured on television certainly added to the league’s national profile.

I loved the commentators on TV2’s football broadcasts though I did not understand a word of the commentary – I only started learning Xhosa in 1988. The commentators included men like Zama Masondo and Dan Setshedi, the latter, a genial, overweight man, who spoke in a nasal twang and sounded like he was imitating American sports commentators. The announcers often made up for uninspiring and often amateurish production values. Television broadcasts of games were characterized by static camera work (often by a single camera stationed at midfield), unsophisticated graphics, and more often that not incorrect information about players or league standings.6 Some of these commentators invented their own version of the South American ‘Gol!’ celebration with one of their own in Zulu: ‘Laduma!’ which literally means ‘It thunders!’ To get the full extent of both of these, imagine the vowels dragged out for about a full minute each.

The NSL was never that popular in Cape Town. This football was frowned upon for not being sufficiently anti-Apartheid. Others went on about the fact that the two clubs which usually ended up representing the region in the NSL were based in the city’s white suburbs. These two clubs were Hellenic and Cape Town Spurs.7 Though both clubs had some black players, people in the townships did not necessarily identify with them. The NSL was also marred by frequent violence and by allegations of favouritism of its top clubs. The fact that for a long time only two clubs – Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs – really counted in the league in terms of sponsorship or exposure, also had a lot to do with it. But for others, I think, it was simply because it was ‘African’, and not Coloured, football.

I liked Orlando Pirates, also known as ‘The Buccaneers’, a club based in Soweto and also one of the oldest clubs in South Africa. Founded in 1937, their players wore black with a skull and bones badge on their chests.8 Later I would find out that the club often featured Coloured and Indian players in its line-ups in the 1960s, much to the chagrin of some African football officials and the Apartheid state. Also that Nelson Mandela was a supporter. But at the time I did not know. Years later, tired of not having a hometown professional team, I decided to also support Ajax Cape Town. But when my daughter was born in 2005, one of the first things I did in the hospital was take a picture of her with a Pirates scarf. As the Buccaneer faithful put it: ‘Once a Pirate, always a Pirate’. But for most of the people I knew, the NSL may as well as have been played in another country, because what really counted was the English First Division.

I would lie if I said the reason I became a Liverpool supporter was because the club had a left-wing history and because its supporters are so passionate (tell me if you’re not moved by ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’). But it is largely through my dad who hardly cared for local football, but worshipped Liverpool. (Of course, he also had no problem with English football, since it meant he did not have to go to sports grounds and mix with the unsaved.)

Liverpool was an odd choice to support for a black boy growing into his teens in 1980s Cape Town. The club hardly had an illustrious history of fielding black players and amongst its supporters were known racists. Interestingly, Leeds United – often criticized for having racist fans – actually has a more inclusive history than Liverpool. Specific to South Africa, several black South Africans have played for Leeds, beginning with Albert Johanneson and Gerry Francis in the 1960s and then Phil Masinga and Lucas Radebe after the end of Apartheid. Radebe went on to become Leeds’ first black captain in 2001.

It may be fortuitous that the first live television game I saw with my dad at home was the European Cup final between Liverpool and Roma on 30 May 1984. (Inciden- tally, we only got a television in our house earlier that year.) My dad and I sat up late that night as the game stalemated at 1-1 after a great Phil Neal goal for Liverpool and an equalizer by Roma’s Roberto Pruzzo. After extra time the game headed to penalties. I still remember the sequence. First Steve Nicol misses, but then World Cup winners Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani blasted the ball into the stands, perhaps put off by Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s antics in goal. The remainder of Liverpool’s penalty takers kept a cool head. 4-2 to Liverpool.

That Liverpool team were my dream team for a long time after that night: Bruce Grobbelaar, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy, Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen, Kenny Dalglish, Sammy Lee, Ian Rush, Craig Johnstone and Graeme Souness.

Before the triumph against the hosts in Rome, Liverpool had beaten Real Madrid for its other European success that decade, the 1981 European Cup in Paris. Alan Kennedy, another favourite player of mine, scored the late winner, and only goal, in that game. It is notable that the only black player on the field played for Real Madrid: the very talented Englishman Laurie Cunningham.

Though the supporters of Everton, the rival club in Liverpool, became notorious for shouting ‘Niggerpool!’ and ‘Everton are white!’ at John Barnes during a league game in late 1987 at Anfield (Liverpool’s home), Liverpool fans were hardly better. They threw bananas on the field weeks earlier when winger John Barnes made his debut for the team against Arsenal at Highbury. Barnes was only the second black player to play for Liverpool. The first black player to play for Liverpool was Howard Gayle, who signed in 1977, and who only played five games for the first team between 1980 and 1981 …

Perhaps the most practical reason I was drawn to English football was because it was the only regular international football we could watch on television in South Africa. I remember only seeing news highlights of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, for example. And it was reinforced in local newspapers, so although I favoured Brazil for World Cups – their teams looked like me and I could not stand the English national team – I hardly knew or cared about the weekend box scores from the Brazilian league or its clubs.


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