Fans cheering Bafana Bafana on at FNB Stadium. Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix
As a motif for the absence of soccer fans at FNB Stadium last week, my pal’s Facebook update was perfect. He referred to the sparse crowd as criminal, adding that his daughter’s cell phone had just been pilfered.

Insult upon injury; no-one ever said being a Bafana Bafana supporter was easy. For a country that professes to love sport, a claim that might’ve been stretched rather much in recent years, the growing disinterest in the national soccer side is alarming.

Last Saturday, 20000-odd tickets were sold for the Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria’s Super Eagles. When you consider that the super-stadium holds almost 95 000 people, you realise just how sparse the crowd was. Moreover, the bulk of those supporters were expatriate Nigerians – you could tell by the feverish support from fans decked in the Super Eagles’ colours, so fewer than 10000 South Africans bothered to make the trip.

(The scene was little better at Moses Mabhida several days later).

Part of the problem is that Bafana have ridden an endless cycle of despair, a misery shared by fans. If you take the 2010 World Cup as a watershed for the local game, it’s a reasonable starting point to track Bafana’s trajectory. Including the World Cup of 2010, they’ve played 128 matches in all competitions, winning just 44.4 percent of the time (56 victories).

At the best of times, FNB is difficult to get to. Notwithstanding the grand promises of legacies and what-have-you, the 2010 World Cup bequeathed no integrated transport system for major soccer games. Getting to and from these is still a dog’s breakfast, especially in Joburg with a single major thoroughfare in and out of the area.

To be fair, cricket and rugby are no better. The South African stadium experience generally remains an exercise in frustration and indigestion.

Chiefs and Pirates might draw upwards of 80 000 for their feverish derbies, but this is because fans believe it’s worth the trouble to negotiate the terrible drive to and from FNB. “Ah,” they say, “it’s worth it for the vibe, the goals and the action.”

The trouble with Bafana is that they make no comparably compelling claim. It’s not that the team is necessarily poor  they do one-offs when we least expect  but they are such hit-and-miss merchants. Only once in the past nine seasons have they managed more than three wins on the bounce.

In 2016, they got four.

It’s hard to love a team which seldom wins trophies. If you think back to the mid-1990s, Bafana Bafana were adored, and that was even before they won the Cup of Nations. After that, players like Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish and Mark Williams attained a legendary status that endures.

Soccer has got itself into a pickle because for the team to become popular and lay claim to the passions of South Africans, they must win.

But to win, they require the support of all South Africans, much as they did in 2010 when the wondrous World Cup wave swept in and Bafana strung together several excellent results.

Chances have been squandered, chiefly after the 2010 World Cup, and Bafana don’t have a powerful talisman à la Radebe or Benni McCarthy; someone both the team and the country could gravitate towards.

There are no easy fixes, but fix it they must. It’s not just Bafana who deserve better. So do we.


Sunday Tribune

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