Football in South Africa

In the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, Gabby Logan travelled to South Africa for BBC television's Inside Sport to talk apartheid, crime and vuvuzelas. Cameron Carter watches with interest

Since discovering the continent of Africa, Europeans helped themselves to its vast mineral and human resources. In return, Africa received smallpox and football. At least the latter is going to pay off for some of the population of South Africa next year. Inside Sport (BBC1, December 7) gave a brief history lesson on football in the apartheid era and addressed the two main fears of visiting European fans – the urban crime rate and a loud plastic trumpet.

Robben Island, where political prisoners were indefinitely detained during the apartheid era, developed its own three-division football league. Former prisoners, from the museum pieces that were once their cells, talked of the importance of football on the island and how seriously the league was played out. A small FIFA laws book was found in the prison library and painstakingly transcribed, teams were formed and matches organised – with a referee and linesmen – on a rough pitch. Fines were administered for transgressions by individuals or teams and the record-keeping and mundane nature of administrative deliberations seems to have given almost as much comfort to the prisoners as the game itself. The inmates defied every rule of the apartheid regime but abided by FIFA’s rules to the letter – something one can only hope the prison authorities noticed.

Just to assure us that South Africa 2010 would not all be about the dignity of human suffering, the scene shifted to a wide shot of Gabby Logan and Gary Mabbutt in the middle of a crowd at an Orlando Pirates game. At first it looked like Inside Sport’s producer had hit upon a new unlikely presenting double-act, perhaps towards the end of a very late production meeting: “It’s brilliant – their names are nearly the same and yet they look different!” Disappointingly, it turns out Mabbutt coaches in South African football and helped with the bid for the 2010 World Cup. Here Gabby was fully exposed to the vuvuzela, a trumpet-like instrument that the locals sound whenever the spirit takes them.

The vuvuzela is a controversial instrument in that it is not in any way musical but is very loud – a bit like Blink 182 – and its use has little or nothing to do with the action on the pitch. Europeans hate it, apparently. From this evidence, a South African football crowd appears to be the aural equivalent of a swarm of giant bees joining the Monaco Grand Prix while a three-year-old child wails for order. Fortunately for the European vuvuzela-haters, a maximum of 15 per cent of the crowd at any game will actually be made up of South Africans – partly because a ticket for a game costs a fortnight’s wages for an averagely paid worker.

Escaping to the relative calm of the streets of Soweto, Gabby was told by comedian Kagiso Lediga of the relief felt by locals whenever it is discovered that the victim of a new car-jacking is South African rather than a foreign visitor. He was only half joking. As the World Cup finals approach, the paranoia concerning crime in South African cities is felt more keenly by the locals than Europeans.

Further to Ray Stubbs’s aggressive manner of joke-telling, mentioned recently, let us next consider his insatiable desire to create an argument from nothing. On Between The Lines (ESPN, December 21) he asked Alan Curbishley what Liverpool had to do to stop the current rot. Curbishley gave it as his opinion that it was vital Liverpool won their next game, as that would give them a platform to build on and take some of the pressure off. “They’ve got to win more than one game,” countered Stubbs, as if Curbishley had actually meant that winning one game would guarantee the club a trophy.

Stubbs clearly wants to engineer a bear pit of cut-and-thrust in an ESPN studio in which one can detect a fly shrugging, but attempting to wrestle controversy from sleepily innocuous statements like that is just a little bit embarrassing. If you wish to create a new style of edgy street punditry on ESPN, Ray, you might consider sharpening your own skills in a freestyle analysis battle in a cellar bar, perhaps disrespecting Jon Champion’s European full-back recognition in rhyme in front of a baying crowd.

Still with Between The Lines, just one last complaint for 2009. Why, when showing the newspaper headlines surrounding John Terry’s alleged moonlighting as a tour guide, does the camera have to switch edgily from in-focus to out-of-focus? Obviously the fear is that a three second still of a newspaper headline is so tedious it will cause viewers to switch channels en masse. The solution then would be to pretend the shot is from RocknRolla. Do we sense bad-ass Ray Stubbs’s influence again?

From WSC 276 February 2010