The Broader Picture: Fever Pitch, African Style

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According To the rules laid down by Fifa, football's governing body, "the goal shall consist of two upright posts, eight yards apart (inside measurement), joined by a horizontal crossbar the lower edge of which shall be eight feet from the ground". But when did those who play the people's game ever bother about the niceties of the rule-book? Certainly not the amateur footballers of southern Africa's rural expanses, where the Johannesburg-born photographer Neville Gabie captured these images of the sport at its humblest and most spontaneous.

No gang of kids in the playground ever lacked for a goal. If the trees are too far apart, a couple of sweaters will do. In spirit, the strange and beguiling structures shown here are no different. For the mass appeal of football lies in its simplicity. Equipment is minimal. There's the ball - and then there's something to aim it at.

In an age when the revamping of so many football grounds has educated us in the aesthetics of stadium design, the architecture of the goal is a subject that has passed by even the most trivia-obsessed of football followers. Yet certain goals - and their nets and stanchions - live in the memory: one thinks of the elegant, capacious goals that used to grace Wembley; the imposing square uprights-and-crossbar of Hampden Park; that extra kink in the Chelsea stanchions that were part of the Peter Osgood era. Nowadays, nets in the professional game are increasingly standardised: box-like and stanchion-free, they billow nicely enough when the shots go in. But, as they say in sport, there aren't the characters any more.

That's the beauty of the goals that Neville Gabie - who trained as a sculptor - has discovered on travels through South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe during the last 18 months. They speak of local identity, and of a resourcefulness in creating that magic rectangle out of almost any materials that came to hand.

"When I looked at these photographs [there are over 30 in the series], I realised they showed something I'd been trying to achieve in my sculpture," Gabie says. "It was to do with the succinct way the goals commented on the landscape in which they were made." And, of course, they are very obvious symbols of aspiration in countries where a great well of football talent is at last beginning to be tapped. When the draw for the 1998 World Cup finals takes place next week, South Africa will be there for the first time.

So what is it about this particular geometric arrangement of wood or metal? Certainly we have a sense of the goal as sacred object (that's why it was so shocking to see a Wembley crossbar broken by hooligans during a pitch invasion in the 1970s). But a deeper answer may lie in an expression used recently by a manager in Scotland, who delighted in a long-range shot that had gone "straight in the postage stamp". There you have it: the goal is the envelope on which every player dreams of writing history. !