Let's really get behind our team at the Olympics

In the excitement about the local government elections on Wednesday, it was easy to forget that one of the world’s greatest sporting events was kicking off this week. The Olympic Games happen once every four years and remain one of the greatest measures of sporting excellence.

South Africa has a huge team participating, including in athletics and swimming but also in sport like sevens rugby and soccer, both men and women.

I was reminded of the Olympics on Tuesday – at a time when my mind was only on the elections – when I received an email from a journalist at a major Brazilian newspaper wanting to know my views on why South Africa’s national soccer team was mainly black, with, in his words, “the only white person you can see around the pitch during the practice is the team doctor”.

My initial response to queries like this is normally: “Really? Do you guys have nothing better to write about?” But I did try to respond to explain the strange phenomenon in South Africa where rugby and cricket appear to be more popular among white people and soccer appears to be more popular among blacks.

I suspect that soccer teams will be mainly black for a long time to come, but this is not because whites are knowingly excluded but rather that whites seem to exclude themselves from South African soccer but they continue to support British or European soccer.

I don’t know the reason for why there seems to be a racial divide when it comes to soccer but I suspect it has something to do with soccer being more affordable to play, which makes it more attractive to blacks. When I grew up on the Cape Flats, we often used to make soccer balls out of newspaper stuffed into plastic carrier bags, and we used bricks or big stones to make our goalposts.

You also did not need a smooth surface on which to play, even though that helped. My body still aches when I think about how, as a goalkeeper many years ago, I had to dive to save balls on fields that contained more stones and sand than grass.

I suppose one could do the same with rugby, even though the shape of the ball is different but it is not that easy with cricket. Cricket can be an expensive game, especially for people who have very little.

But the thing about soccer is that throughout the world, it is the sport supported by the working class, whether it is in Europe or Latin America. It is played in many more countries than any other sport. This is why FIFA, the world soccer controlling body, is so popular and so powerful.

Soccer has brought joy to many over the years. It is not known as the beautiful game for nothing and has developed generation after generation of superstars, from Pele and Maradona to Ronaldo and Messi, and many others in between.

I believe that one of the reasons South Africa soccer has not really been supported by whites is because it is not offered as an option at many former white schools. This means that parents do not have to get up early on a Saturday morning to watch their loved ones play soccer, in the way that they have to do for rugby and cricket.

This non-attendance of soccer matches then continues into the period after the children leave school. Support for rugby and cricket starts at school and continues afterwards.

One way of addressing this is of course for more schools to offer soccer as a sporting option. I don’t know why schools do not do this, because it makes so much sense.

After all, soccer is less likely than a sport like rugby to lead to serious injuries and, also, soccer players globally are among the highest earning sports people. So if you want little Johnny to make some money out of sport, which could help you retire early and comfortably, it probably makes sense to encourage a soccer career. Or golf, but that is also an expensive option.

South Africa has not done too well as a soccer-playing nation over the past decade or so and there are all kinds of factors to blame, from bad coaching appointments to players feeling more loyal to their clubs who pay them mega-salaries than to their country where they effectively play for charity.

But it remains an important sport and one that has helped to galvanise our nation in 2010 and could potentially do it again in future.

If our soccer team does not have much hope at the Olympics, our swimmers and athletes do and we hope that they will make us proud as they have done often in the past at these great Games.

After the divisions of the local government elections – when hot-headed politicians destroyed any attempt at nation-building in their attempts to win votes – we can now refocus our attention on the Olympic Games and throw our weight behind Team South Africa.

Let’s hope they make us proud irrespective of the demographics. Ultimately, the Olympics is about pitting the best in the world against each other and if our best soccer players happen to be mainly black, then they still deserve our support.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 6 August 2016)