Race and Football in South Africa


We’ve talked before about South Africa’s love of football, digging into the rivalry between the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. But while that illustrated the country’s passion for the game, today we will discuss the particular importance of football to the nation’s primarily black population.

While cricket and rugby are also popular games here, those sports have been historically white in this country, and even with the abolishment of apartheid in 1994, have remained predominantly white. While some blacks and colored people have started a rise to cricket or rugby notoriety, football still remains the clear king among these groups. For many of these people, South Africa’s proudest moment to this day is winning the African Cup of Nations in 1996. This post will expand a bit upon the South African football world, giving you some nice information to break the ice with next time you find yourself in a social situation with a South African.

We have already discussed the Kaizer Chiefs—essentially the New York Yankees or Manchester United of South African football—and their rival Orlando Pirates. However, there are other South African clubs that have earned popularity since the nation’s Premier League inked an international broadcasting deal in 2007, generating funds (it is now the seventh-wealthiest league in the world) to attract more talent. Some of the most notable include the Mamelodi Sundowns (also known as the “Brazilians”) and SuperSport United—both based in Tshwane/Pretoria.

As far as competitions go, the regular-season Premier League is the biggest prize, but there are several others. The MTN 8 is an annual knockout tournament featuring the top eight Premier League finishers from the previous season, while the Telkom Knockout Cup is similar but extends invitations to all 16 Premier League teams. There is also the Nedbank Cup, which is an annual tournament that gives lower-division clubs a chance to compete with (and sometimes defeat) Premier League squads.

Of course, there is also the national team, affectionately know as Bafana Bafana (“the boys”) and Banyana Banyana (“the girls”). Bafana Bafana’s aforementioned 1996 African Cup victory was a shock following the nation’s failure to even qualify for the 1994 edition, and a huge windfall for the national psyche in the fragile post-apartheid era. The club also put on a formidable showing as host nation of the 2010 World Cup, kicking the tournament off in fine fashion with a brilliant strike from Siphiwe Tshabalala in the opening match. Banyana Banyana, meanwhile, has consistently been one of the top clubs in Africa.

Bafana Bafana's Siphiwe Tshabalala kicks off the 2010 World Cup with a goal against Mexico

Bafana Bafana’s Siphiwe Tshabalala kicks off the 2010 World Cup with a goal against Mexico

IDbarcelona: More Than a Club


FCB Logo

They certainly make Barcelona natives proud for their exploits on the pitch: FC Barcelona has long cemented its reputation as one of the greatest football clubs in the history of the sport. Today, they are widely regarded as the best team in the world. But part of what makes this club so iconic, and its rivalry with Real Madrid the most publicized in the world, is that unlike other iconic sports clubs, the ramifications of this clubs results stretch far beyond the pitch.

If you take a look back through Spain’s political history, you’ll see that nearly every idea that shaped the country’s identity—at various times republicanism, federalism, anarchism, syndicalism and communism—were introduced via Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital.

In the middle of the 20th century, thanks to the dictatorships of Miguel Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco, regional pride within the Spanish borders was restrained. This hit hard in Catalonia, which has always found pride in its linguistic dialect and its own identity, so strong that there have always been and are still today frequent calls for its secession from Spain. Because FC Barcelona at the time represented progressive beliefs, and took on the wider role of representing Catalonia as a whole, the club gained the motto més que un club (“more than a club”) during this time—a motto that continues to thrive today.

The bleachers at Camp Nou, FC Barcelona's home ground

The bleachers at Camp Nou, FC Barcelona’s home ground


South Africa’s Big Game: The Soweto Derby


Unlike most of Africa, cricket and rugby are sports of massive importance to South African culture and its national identity. Like most of Africa, however, this is also a nation fanatical about football, and that obsession is most evident each year when the famed Kaizer Chiefs take on their hated crosstown rival, the Orlando Pirates. Today is the 43rd anniversary of the first of these meetings.

The Soweto Derby, as it has come to be known, annually pit two of the Premier Soccer League’s teams against each other. That their home grounds are located just 10 kilometers apart adds fuel to the fire. In 36 all-time meetings to date, the teams are aggregately separated by just one goal, and also separated by just one game in the standings. Kaizer has won 13 of the meetings, Orlando 11, and 12 matches have resulted in a draw.

The first Soweto Derby took place on January 24, 1970. Adding to the rivalry, the Chiefs were actually formed by Kaizer Motaung, who spent much of his career as the star of the Pirates, who were one of South Africa’s first professional football clubs. While many South African Premier League matches fail to draw well, this match is a full house every year, with bragging rights extending throughout the year. Recent tilts have been televised throughout every African country and 43 countries in Europe, speaking to the magnitude of what the rivalry has become.

The last Soweto Derby, this past December, ended in a 1-1 stalemate. The next one takes place March 9th.

Soweto Derby

Enjoy Italy’s Highest (Staged) Art Form: Football!


Italy and football go together almost as fittingly as Italians and pasta. The Azzurri (national team) are a national obsession, and the fans are just as fanatical about the top professional league, Serie A. While names such as Internazionale, Juventus and AC Milan have a major global presence, every club has its share of passionate supporters. I wonder, however, if they are aware that what they are watching is actually athletic theatre. Given today’s significance as Super Bowl Sunday in America, where players are supposed to perform “on the biggest stage”, I figured the timing is good!

What, you thought these games were actually contested on the field? I love Serie A as much as the next guy, but in the country that gave the world organized crime, it would be irresponsible to think that that activity has not trickled down onto the football pitch.

Match fixing became front page material (again) in 2011 when it came out that several former Italian footballers were involved in fixing matches across several leagues in the country.

To detail the extent of it, look no further than the autobiography of Matias Almeyda, an Argentine national who played for eight years in Serie A with Lazio, Parma, Brescia and Inter. Almeyda outlines stories of performance-enhancing drugs being fed to players through IV tubes before games: “They said it was a mixture of vitamins, but before entering the field I was able to jump as high as the ceiling.”

Perhaps more disturbing than the potential long-term health effects of these suspected steroids (Junior Seau, anyone?) are the close ties Almeyda talks about between some clubs and organized crime families.

After a disagreement with Parma owner Stefano Tanzi, Almeyda claims that his house was broken into, his car was stolen from his own garage, and a message was left on the wall with machine oil. That’s kind of like opening a box on your doorstep only to discover a pig’s head inside—well, maybe not that bad, but you get the point. What’s worse, Almeyda said the exact same thing happened to teammate Savo Milosevic after a similar issue with Tanzi.

Long live Serie A as a form of top-flight entertainment, but I’ll side with a few centuries of Italy’s organized crime culture over a few hodgepodge efforts of Serie A to clean itself up in light of some international media attention. And, I’ll keep watching, too!

El Clásico: The Biggest Game in the World


Rivalries exist throughout the sports world. America has its Yankees-Red Sox and its Duke-Carolina. England is where Manchester United and Liverpool, and Chelsea and Arsenal each tilt twice a year. And in South Africa, the Kaizer Chiefs-Orlando Pirates rivalry brings Johannesburg to a halt. Very rarely is the rivalry actually political, however, as is the case in Spain’s larger-than-life El Clásico, the 254th of which takes place today in the first leg of the semifinals of Spain’s Copa del Rey.

Not to overlook that the mutual quality of play is great—FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost always among the most talented and victorious clubs in the world—is the fact that each club also has a long association with differing politics. Barcelona has long represented the identity of its liberal home, Catalonia, while Real Madrid gained the reputation for being the “establishment club” during the Francoist regime in the middle of the 20th century. While this division has not always been so cut-and-dry, polls conducted even today show that Madrid’s followers tend to adopt more right-leaning views, while Barcelona’s are more closely aligned with the left-wing.

Adding to the hysteria, extremist political groups on both sides were born out of support for their beloved clubs, and went onto become known for hooliganism and violence. Ultras Sur, for example, was created in 1980 as a far-right Real Madrid group, while Boixos Nois started the following year as a far-left Barcelona group. In 2000, when former Barcelona star Luis Figo made his return to Camp Nou (Barcelona’s home stadium) as a Madrid player after a transfer, Boixos Nois threw a pig’s head at him. Other groups have followed, with one of the most violent of the Barcelona groups—the Casuals—having evolved into a full-fledged criminal organzation.

Feature film-worthy drama aside, there’s also football, with the teams squaring off twice a year in La Liga, and occasionally in other tournaments like Copa del Rey and UEFA’s Champions League. In total, the clubs have played 253 times, with Barcelona winning 105, Madrid 92, and 56 draws. Those numbers include “friendly” matches, though—of “competitive” matches (the Royal Spanish Football Federation has some convoluted logic as to what differentiates these two classifications), Madrid has won 88 times, Barcelona 86, with 46 draws. Conclusion: it’s pretty competitive between these two, even if there isn’t a clear-cut way to judge who has been more successful. That is why the rivalry is followed around the world, with one of its most anticipated showdowns—the 2002 Champions League semifinal—having been played to a worldwide audience of more than 500 million.

In case you miss today, you won’t have to wait long for the next one. The teams will play the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals on 27 February, and again the following week in La Liga.

Photo credit: Barcaloco.com

Image credit: Barcaloco.com

All Hail The Church of Manny!


Every country and every culture has its heroes—those individuals, whether politicians, athletes or entertainers that we elevate onto a pedestal, making them bigger than they actually are. America has Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan and Lady Gaga, while England swoons over Prince William and Kate. Brazil elevates its football stars from Pele to Kaka to Neymar, while Nelson Mandela, Charlize Theron and Oscar Pistorius sit high atop the South African psyche. But nowhere on earth is anyone more unanimously embraced and revered than the Philippines’ very own national hero: Manny Pacquiao.

Manny Pacquiao

Supporting himself from the age of 14 by winning chump change in street fights, Pacquiao fought his way out of poverty and became one of the most successful boxers in the world. While his professional career has hit some bumps in the past year, which tends to happen with age, he was the world’s “Fighter of the Decade” in the 2000s, earning hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. His success in the ring has led to a cult following outside the ring, as he was elected to the Philippines House of Representatives in 2010, and has also enjoyed success as an actor and a recording artist.

While all national heroes and icons obviously enjoy popularity, you would be hard-pressed to find any figure in the past 50 years who has reached the cult status that Manny has reveled in. If you know anyone who is even of Filipino descent, then you know what I mean. When Manny fights, it’s like Christmas—entire families, friends, cousins, friends of friends, cousins of cousins and friends of friends of those cousins gather to watch. And cheer. Loudly.

It just so happens that Filipinos are also among the more religious people in the world—it seems that everyone is Catholic, proudly attending mass every Sunday, from Manila to California. But I’ve always joked that if Manny Pacquiao—himself a devout Catholic—decided to break from the church and start a religion of his own, the pews of those Catholic Churches would be empty within a week. Instead, everyone would flock to the new Church of Manny to get their fill of the spirit.

Before you get all bent out of shape, relax. I’m just joking. Well, unless Manny actually decides to do it!

Manny Pacquiao

Chalk up another one for The Champ

Manny Pacquiao

Make ’em swoon, Manny

No New Year’s Lull in Ghana with Africa Cup of Nations on the Horizon


Ghana's Football Team Logo

After the excitement of the Holidays, a festive New Year’s celebration, and all of the time off from work that much of the world enjoys over the last 5 or so weeks of the year, a New Year lull often follows for many of us. In America, we lament the fact that many of us won’t have another holiday until late May. That lull doesn’t exist in Ghana, however, because January means that it’s time for another Africa Cup of Nations.

Africa’s pre-eminent football (soccer for some of you) tournament is held every other January. Ghana’s Blackstars had a disappointing fourth-place finish in 2012, but they will have a chance to avenge that just one year later rather than the typical two, as the Confederation of African Football moved the tournament to odd numbered years, starting this year, to avoid taking place in the same year as the World Cup, as happened in 2010 (which ironically represented Ghana’s best ever finish in the global tournament).

The Africa Cup of Nations is indeed big news in this football-crazed nation, as there are few things that most Ghanaians consider more important than watching the Blackstars–including wives, girlfriends, business meetings, etc. Funnily enough, this is even evident in a majority of the nation’s political speeches. When late President John Atta Mills appointed ministers upon taking office in 2009, excluding some widely expected appointees, he was able to smooth his decisions over with the National Democratic Congress by using–you guessed it–football analogies. The official statement that came from the President’s office stated that Mills, as the coach of team Ghana, decides “which player plays at what time. And since this is the first half, they should give the President leeway to bring the set of players he wants to play this first half.” Later in the statement, it was noted that it was possible that the potential appointees who were excluded initially would still earn their expected posts later in his term, as “the game has just begun.”

Ghana's Football Team Pre-Match

The men the nation obsesses over…