Benni can reignite local interest in the beautiful game

Ryland Fisher is excited about the relaunched Cape Town City and the appointment of Hanover Park-born Benni McCarthy as coach.

For many young boys of my generation, who lived on the Cape Flats, soccer was an important part of our lives. Many of us played soccer, either in the Saturday or Sunday leagues - some in both, even though technically this was not allowed - and we had formal practices a few times a week. On the other days, we could be found playing soccer on one of the open pieces of land near the blocks of flats where we lived.

It was a way of keeping ourselves occupied and helped to keep many of my peers away from the gangs which infested such a huge part of our community.

Support for local soccer has always been big and, over weekends, dozens of people, sometimes even hundreds, would stand on the side lines to watch us play. They would not only be parents who were forced to watch us, as happens with lots of sporting activity in the wealthier suburbs, but would include many people for whom this would be a rare entertainment activity.

Soccer supporters were mostly fairly knowledgeable and would encourage their teams to do whatever was needed to do to win. They would normally take umbrage at refereeing that they considered to be below par, which was most of the time.

The support for local soccer has never really transferred to the PSL teams and stadiums remain largely empty when our professional teams play, unless it is against teams such as Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates when the stadium is filled with supporters of the teams from Gauteng.

Part of the reason for the lack of support could be blamed on economics - you can watch local amateur soccer for free but having to pay to watch professional soccer, even if it is only R20 or R30, can be hard on the pocket and has to compete with bread, milk and airtime, which, for some people, has become as great a necessity as staple foods.

There are some people who argue that Kaizer Chiefs supporters seem to find the money to support their team, wherever they play in the country, but this is not something that requires a cash injection week after week.

The big teams visit every couple of months, at most. Support for local soccer is going to depend on people being prepared to part with their cash on a near weekly basis.

I was very excited when I heard about the launch (or should that be relaunch) of Cape Town City. I grew up supporting the old Cape Town City and my father used to take me to watch them play at Hartleyvale when it was still a soccer stadium. When I became politically aware, I started supporting Santos, which competed in the non-racial league.

My support for the new Cape Town City has very little to do with what they’ve done on the field, although that has been impressive.

My enthusiasm was linked to some of the things the team said it would do, and what it did at the outset.

One of these things was to identify soccer stalwarts, not only from the PSL but also those who supported anti-apartheid sport, and offer them free entry to their games. They spoke about taking soccer to the people.

The appointment of Benni McCarthy as their head coach, despite his not having coaching experience, is another good move.

Let me declare my conflict upfront: I am a proud product of Hanover Park, a place which is always in the news for the wrong reasons but which has given to our community leaders in many areas of society, not only in sport and entertainment.

McCarthy is, of course, a product of those amateur leagues that are so popular on the Cape Flats but he was noticed by professional scouts at a young age, going on to become Bafana Bafana’s most prolific goal scorer.

I am sure he will make us proud and hopefully convince more people that they should part with their hard-earned cash to support local professional soccer.

Years ago, I learnt that people who succeed in life also want vindication from the people with whom they grew up or who live in their home towns. I have worked with at least two internationally-acclaimed South African musicians who shared with me the same story about how they wished they could have the same acclaim locally as they enjoyed abroad.

McCarthy has an opportunity to wriggle himself back into the hearts of people from all over Cape Town who may have begun to forget his achievements on the soccer field. He can also be the catalyst for reigniting interest in local professional soccer.

As we celebrate Youth Month, apart from sorting out pertinent issues such as unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people, we need to pay more attention to the things that interest our youth. Sport, in particular soccer, and music are two of those things. It is a pity that the government and many corporates do not seem to realise the importance of the stuff that feeds our soul, such as sport and music.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 17 June 2017)