Football: S Africa's game remains rooted in the ghetto: Dave Hadfield reports from Johannesburg on an uncertain future for football in the Republic

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The Independent Online
ANY South African who has been away for a while would hardly have recognised Ellis Park on Sunday.

Johannesburg's cathedral to rugby union held the most racially mixed crowd that can ever have attended a major sporting event in the country, attracted by the meeting of Arsenal and Manchester United in the United Bank International Soccer Festival.

You were as likely to be sitting among a mini-bus full of blacks from Soweto as among British expatriates, or among a coach-load of Cape Coloureds, Malays and whites from Cape Town, 900 miles away, as easily as a party of Indians from Durban.

It was evidence for those who believe that sport - and football in particular - can be a powerful unifying force in this troubled country. It was also profoundly untypical and potentially misleading.

Football in South Africa, despite exceptions like the former Manchester United goalkeeper, Gary Bailey, and Neil Tovey, the Kaizer Chiefs captain lionised by black fans, remains firmly rooted in the black sporting ghetto.

Whites who have never been within 1,000 miles of Old Trafford or Highbury follow the progress of English clubs with a passion, but they would not dream of going in any numbers to Soccer City, on the fringes of Soweto, to watch the domestic product.

The reason for this, apart from the black environment in which the games are staged, is primarily that they are not very good.

The emergence from international isolation into the spotlight has exposed South African football as having fallen behind much of the rest of Africa.

Already out of the qualifying stages of the World Cup, South Africa has also been eliminated from the African Nations Cup, finding themselves embarrassingly outclassed by Zambia only a matter of weeks after the Zambians had lost 18 of their best players in an air disaster and managing only a goalless home draw against tiny Mauritius.

Kaizer Chiefs, the most high-profile club side in the country, were recently knocked out of the African Champions Cup by Zamalek, the Cairo team coached by Dave Mackay.

Although South Africa has a long history of exporting players, like the white Eddie Firmani and Stuart Leary to Charlton in the Fifties and the Coloured (in the apartheid definition) Albert Johanneson to Leeds in the Sixties, they have no current equivalent of Coventry's Peter Ndlovu. A few spells on loan in the Greek Second Division seem to be about the limit of the current crop.

Isolation clearly has a lot to answer for, but there is also criticism here of the lack of an effective development programme which could convert the obvious love for the game at township pitch and backstreet level into a better standard of professional football .

Football and corruption are two words which are frequently linked together here. One official is in prison for a confidence trick involving television rights for the last World Cup.

The development potential of famous overseas players is exploited only tentatively. Manchester United's coaching clinic for 100 hand-picked township children at Tembisa last week could have looked suspiciously like a token effort had it not been for for the enthusiasm of players like Steve Bruce.

Even the chance to watch world-famous foreign sides in action could lose its glitter if there are many repeats of the Milan fiasco earlier this year.

Publicity homed in on the projected meeting between Ruud Gullit and Nelson Mandela, to whom he dedicated one of his European Cup medals. Mandela was there but Gullit never left Europe, once more exposing South African football to the criticism that it is better at misleading its public than delivering the goods.

Many of the fans who were disappointed that day then have now had the consolation of seeing the likes of Ryan Giggs and Ian Wright. But it will take more than flying visits, even by the most magnetic names in the football world, to bring South Africa up to the pace of the best of the rest of Africa.

(Photograph omitted)