The Africa Cup of Nations 2013 may not have matched the quality on the pitch but off it was how South Africa’s World Cup 2010 should have been, argues Marc Fletcher in a debut piece for Just Football:
Ok, so there were many empty seats.
Approximately only 8,000 attended the Ghana v Mali fixture in Port Elizabeth and a similar number watched eventual runners-up Burkina Faso v Zambia in Nelspruit. But this is a problem that has plagued past editions of the tournament while South Africa’s domestic Premier Soccer League suffers similar poor attendances outside of the big teams such as Kaizer Chiefs.
Unlike the 2010 World Cup, Afcon 2013 was not littered with superstars. With South Africa’s key football-supporting demographic from the black poor and working class, why spend hard-earned money to watch two teams that you have little or no interest in?
There are few, if any, African countries that have a large fan base with a large enough disposable income to fly out to the southern tip of the continent. Unlike the vast hoards of travelling football tourists at the Euros or at the World Cup, the support of visiting teams is usually restricted to a small rump of die-hard regular fans who are sometimes subsided by the state or political parties.
This is a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon.
Ok, so there were many gremlins in the ticketing process too.
The ticketing website was poorly advertised. As late as November, no-one seemed to know if this existed. Not journalists, not organisers, and seemingly not even the Confederation of African Football.
The collection process from a small number of Spar shops from around the country also created problems. When ticket sales opened, some complained that they could not find one of these stores to buy tickets, they did not live near one and had no transport by which to get to one, or that the ticket machines were frequently offline.
However, in one key aspect, the ticketing strategy of Afcon 2013 was far superior to the World Cup; it was significantly cheaper.
Although FIFA’s flagship tournament had introduced cheaper South African – only tickets designed to allow the poorer majority of the country’s football support base to join in, the cheapest ticket priced at R140/ £10 (domestic matches cost R20/ £1.40) still priced many out of attending.
Factor in the cost of transport, and overpriced food and drink, a day out to a World Cup match was still beyond the reach of many. This time around, the organisers hit closer to the mark.
2010 was more for the foreign tourists, but with tickets starting at R50/ £3.50 for the group games, 2013 was more a tournament for South Africans.
Ok, so it felt as if the tournament had passed most of South Africa by.
Despite the slogan of the tournament, “The Beat at Africa’s Feet”, the atmosphere was strangely subdued, at least to begin with. In 2010, there were numerous posters around the city, large fan parks with big screens and people blowing vuvuzelas on street corners.
This time, it was severely underwhelming. There was little party atmosphere and no opportunity to celebrate African football at a mass venue.
The small scale public viewing areas in the poorer parts of the city organised by Jo’burg City Council was a great idea in principle, reaching people who could not watch it otherwise.
Yet, when I went, it appeared dead. Of course, when reading this, it has to be remembered that the organising committee had less than a year to get everything ready, after CAF voted to switch original hosts Libya with 2017 in South Africa.
Yet the beat grew louder as the tournament entered the knockout stages.
South Africa’s progress to the quarter-finals had widely been seen as a surprise and Bafanamania quickly kicked in. The quarter final against Mali in Durban was sold out, while vendors on street intersection started selling South African flags and other merchandise.
The day before the Mali match, over 30,000 tickets had already been sold, with tickets selling out hours before the quarter-final. Clearly, there were enough people with blind faith in the South African team that they were prepared to gamble on them progressing further.
Yet, despite these problems, Afcon 2013 is what World Cup 2010 should have been.
Walking towards the spectacular Soccer City stadium for the final, it was quickly apparent that this was unlike the World Cup almost three years previously.
As football fans, we had been promised an African World Cup (whatever that entailed). After all, we had been repeatedly told that “It’s Africa’s Turn” and that South Africa would show the world what Africa had to offer.
Instead, we were met with the bland, commercialised environment in which we could only consume official sponsors’ products.
The high ticket prices barred many of the domestic football supporters from participating. The local flavour of the tournament had been reduced to the controversy surrounding vuvuzelas.
This time was different.
Cheaper tickets must have been a factor, allowing those who could not participate in the World Cup to engage, to experience and to celebrate.
The final was a dream for the proponents of the South African Rainbow Nation. People of different races, ethnicity, class and gender were socialising with one another, dancing, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas together.
Yet it was more than that. Whether their team had reached the final or not, the vast array of different African football shirts and flag signalled a wider belonging to Africa. Zambia, Ethiopia, Tunisia, DR Congo, Somalia and Tanzania were just a small number of those on display.
It temporarily changed attitudes.
The vast majority of people were supporting Nigeria. Although unsurprising considering the large Nigerian community in the city, what was surprising was the number of South Africans also supporting the Super Eagles.
Crime and criminality have become associated with Nigerians living in the city and it is all too easy for people to blame ‘Nigerians’ for the city’s problems. This football match appeared to turn this association upside down; being Nigerian or associating with Nigeria had become a positive thing, if only momentarily.
The bland hot dogs of the World Cup had been replaced with the pap and steak and boerwors rolls, staple foods at domestic matches.
The small group of Burkinabé near me drummed from start to final whistle, giving the tournament the beat that had been lacking. Despite their team never recovering from going 1-0 down, they carried on drumming and dancing throughout; an impressive effort.
Three-quarters of the stadium erupted just before half time when Nigeria went ahead. A flare was set off, forcing the South African Police Service (who attempted to look casual and sporty in their tracksuits) to ‘leap’ into action.
But I shouldn’t romanticise it.
The security checks on fans walking in were inconsistent at best. A feeble, half-hearted pat down from a steward would do little to detect things such as flares.
This constantly happens at local games; my favourite is still seeing someone pull out a full bottle of whisky from his sock and proceeded to sell it (R20 a shot apparently).
Although better than the desert that made up the Mbombela pitch, the pitch at the National Stadium still resembled a beach with clouds of sand constantly kicked up by the players. Traffic chaos in and coming out of the stadium ensued once more.
And as for the claim that football can bring people together? It may have done for a moment during the game but as history reveals, it never seems to last long at all.