I’ve seen a lot of soccer in a little over a week in South Africa, but I realized something strange the other day: almost all of it has been in stadiums. The trope of African soccer is the barefoot child playing on a dirt field with a rag ball—and in my previous experiences in Africa that scenario has been harder to avoid than to find. But in the greater Johannesburg megalopolis circa 2010 the grass roots game seems conspicuously absent from anywhere other than FIFA propaganda.
This struck me most forcefully the other day on a trip through a small part of Soweto—where I finally saw a few casual games being played, but only in the poorer sections. One of the surprising things about the famous ‘township’ is just how much it varies neighborhood by neighborhood. Just across the Soweto Highway from a stereotypical shanty town are neighborhoods of solid working class homes with cars in the garage. Further along, in the sections near the former homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, there are million dollar mansions. In that section I noted to one of the locals that there only seemed to be kids out playing in a few small parts; he explained “Right, in this part they are too busy inside with the Play Station.”
This always seems to happen: the kids that are the most engaged, the most creative, and the most truly child-like in their play are often the ones that have the least. In the poorer parts of Soweto there seemed to be children on every street playing football, on every hill making improvised slides, in every corner crafting paper airplanes from scraps. Will this World Cup help those children? Probably not. But the more interesting question may be, what kind of help do they really need?
I asked some of the locals in Soweto about the situation with community pitches—having heard that part of the World Cup plan involved improving local playing areas—and there have, apparently, been some improvements. But there have also been many empty and distorted promises. In this particular section, for example, the local affiliate of the South African Football Federation had supposedly promised ‘new turf’ for the local dirt pitch (called ‘Shanty Ground’ by locals in tribute to the shanty houses that had previously occupied the neighborhood).
When they started to do the work, however, they began by putting up a large spiked fence with a locked gate that served to keep any and all games off the field. Then they placed a small set of brick changing rooms, also locked, directly in play on the field’s west flank. They did plant new grass, but never sent anyone to mow—not that anyone could get inside anyway—and the grass grew to knee height. As a final insult, they only planted a standard goal on one end.
After months of frustration the locals finally broke the padlocks and cut the grass themselves. But they also found that the changing rooms, which had already been ruined by vandals, blocked enough of the playing area to make it only good for 7 v7. Why bother? Kids can now sneak through the broken gate for a kick-about, but it is useless for games.
Back in the day, however, the locals told me that there used to be crackers. When local rivals Phefeni High School took on Orlando West the whole community would line the pre-fence pitch to sing and dance:
“We used to call it our ‘FNB Stadium’ [the old name for the stadium that was Soccer City]. There would be singing for their team on this side, then singing on that side. We would have our best dancers go out at the interval; they would send their best dancers out. It was just sand where we were playing, but for us it was a great occasion…Now, they just spoiled our field.”
This is just one small example of how, despite many claims about how this World Cup will help develop the game in Africa, there is reason to be concerned about the possibility of real trickle down effects. There is certainly some awareness that has been raised, and some projects that have been useful, but there is also much that seems hollow.
I’ve been particularly irritated by FIFA plastering a ‘20 Centres for 2010’ slogan all over official billboards and advertising related to their ‘Football for Hope’ initiative—as far as I can tell (and as far as anyone has been able to tell me), only one center has been opened and only five others are identified in any plans. So what about the other 14 promised to the continent? Since the slogan specifically says ‘for 2010’ I hope they show up in the next 6 months—but I fear yet another case of grass roots development looking better in promotions than in practice.
Similarly, while much concern has been expressed over ways that the massive cost of the World Cup stadiums to the South African government could hypothetically have gone to other good causes (housing, education, health care, etc.), that is a false choice. The real choice seems to have involved shifting spending to the stadiums from spending on promised local initiatives (such as arts programs and community football). As a Pretoria News article by Janet Smith from Saturday, 12 June 12 explained in addressing the secretive South Africa 2010 budget:
“…Probably the more glaring anomaly has been around arts and culture, where a 2010 task team was axed without an explanation and some for the R150 million allocated for the World Cup seemed to vanish…
We put questions to the LOC [Local Organizing Committee] about each of the many projects upon which Fifa and itself had embarked or promised to begin, but it was not able to answer questions on most legacy commitments. It instead referred us to Fifa, but it was too late to get replies from them.
All we know for sure is that the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund committed R170.1m to build 27 football turfs in communities, and has initiated the process of establishing the first nine sties. But a further 43 still have to be built.
Now though the time for questions has passed.
The juggernaut that is the World Cup is upon us for better or worse…”