Even before the World Cup, the stadium in Soweto had a powerful appeal
Although tarted up in a new orange livery and spectacularly embalmed as a traditional calabash, the Soccer City of 2010 did not have as much impact for me as the old concrete edifice that had been her predecessor before the World Cup.
The Johannesburg stadium, nestled in the shadow of a mine dump on the edge of Soweto, enjoys membership in an exclusive club as one of 18 venues that have hosted a World Cup final, ensuring an iconic place in the history of the game.
And the re-built venue, with its impressive façade, top-class facilities and near 90,000-capacity, is certainly a cathedral worthy of most countries’ footballing devotion. I go there often enough, a minimum of 10 times a season since Spain beat the Netherlands on that cold July night on the Highveld, but when my mind wanders back, it does not find images of Andrés Iniesta grabbing the extra-time winner or Nigel de Jong’s effort at introducing martial arts to the tournament, but rather the days when there was only one covered stand on the western side and you could walk up to the first row of seats on the open side and look down at a pitch set deep as if in a pit.
It is a stadium with a unique story, built at a time of impending change in South Africa and striking a massive blow in the fight against Apartheid even if it did not have the symbolism of a Nelson Mandela.
In the Apartheid era, football stadiums were few and far between and by the mid-80s all relatively run-down and in need of repair. As the mixed-race National Soccer League grew into a powerful commercial entity, emboldened with sponsorship money and even television rights revenue, its marquee matches outgrew venues like Soweto’s overused Orlando Stadium or the drab Rand Stadium in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.
Rugby had the best facilities. It was the official sport of the white-run country, the Springbok team being the opiate of the Afrikaners who held power. But the whites-only rugby unions were not without an eye for commercial opportunity, which often trumped the strictures of the racial segregation laws, and so it was as early as 1982 that Ellis Park was opened to what the media used to call “black soccer”. And the matches were allowed to be played on Sundays too, in a country hitherto bearing a Calvinist yoke that allowed little or no recreation on the Lord’s “day of rest”.
Quickly there emerged a pattern of fixtures which attracted large crowds being played in rugby stadiums. The irony of rental having to be paid to unions still firmly segregated was not lost on the leaders of football, who were a mix of all races in a glimpse of what a future South Africa would become. Professional soccer had been mixed from as early as 1977 and the National Soccer League’s executive committee talked often of building its own stadium, a home for the country’s most popular game that would reflect its dominant position in the sporting landscape.
Plans for a 75,000-capacity stadium at Crowns Mines, on the site of today’s Soccer City, were enthusiastically drawn up, even if Apartheid laws denied ownership of land to blacks which made it seem impossible that the multi-racial NSL should convince the municipality to sell them the ground.
The prime mover was Abdul Bhamjee (his Botswana-based brother Ismail later served as a Fifa executive committee member), who ran a sportswear store in Fordsburg, the Indian commercial and residential enclave in the heart of Johannesburg. Bhamjee was officially the league’s public relations officer, but did almost everything from drafting the fixtures to procuring the myriad ucrative sponsorships the league enjoyed. He was charismatic and had a great gift of the gab. His office in the back of his small shop was the hub of South African football and as a reporter on the Johannesburg daily the Star it was imperative to pop in for a cup of tea more than once a week to be on top of what was going on.
There I remember Bhamjee showing me the first drafts of the plans to build the stadium with his customary unbridled enthusiasm. It seemed an outrageous idea. Never would the PW Botha government allow it but it was best to humour Bhamjee and check my scepticism.
That was in late 1987. By March 1988, Bhamjee had not only got his organisation a meeting with the government but also persuaded them to let him build the stadium. There would be no state assistance, however. The Afrikaner government would have nothing to do with football. By June 1988, private loans and selling rights to First National Bank (so renamed after Barclays pulled out of the country in line with the economic boycott) meant the first brick had been laid.
Just over a year later the first game was played – a capacity crowd proudly cramming in for the second leg of the League Cup final on September 2.
South African football had defied the odds, refused to accept second-class status and built an incredible venue.
It was the scene of many enthralling games thereafter and once South Africa took a place in the international arena as Apartheid died and Mandela took power, it hosted a number of national team games, none more important than the 1996 African Cup of Nations final, which South Africa won, and the match the following year in which the country secured qualification to a first World Cup.
It was already 20 years old when the hosting of the World Cup offered a face lift and we are perhaps prouder of what it symbolises now, even if clad in that awful orange. But I can’t help hankering back nostalgically to the old stadium and all its ground-breaking days.