Soccer City can be a pot of gold at end of the rainbow

Domestic game languishes in doldrums but global showpiece could revive passions of black majority

Junaid Mashamaite knows what it is like to lift a trophy at Johannesburg's Soccer City stadium, where the World Cup final will be played on 11 July. Last month, in the first match to be played at the reconstructed venue, he captained Bidvest Wits to a 3-0 cup final victory over AmaZulu.

Some claimed it was a letdown for two teams from the lower half of the Premier Soccer League (PSL) to be the first to step on to the turf of South Africa's new national football stadium. But Bidvest Wits, who claimed their first silverware since the 1990s, have a small but significant place in South African football history.

The club is unusual in that it grew out of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, or "Wits" for short, and its ground is still on the campus, helping to explain why the team are known as the "Clever Boys". What makes them unique, though, is that they are the only team in today's top flight that used to play in the white professional league during the apartheid era. While formerly all-black clubs such as Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows are still going strong, teams who once dominated the white National Football League, such as Arcadia Shepherds, Durban United and Cape Town City, are no more. Football in South Africa has always been first and foremost the sport of the black majority.

The heyday of segregated white football was in the 1960s and early 1970s, when it attracted large crowds and eager sponsors. The lack of other forms of entertainment helped – South Africa did not have television until 1976 – and the NFL was given a boost by large-scale immigration from footballing countries. My team, Cape Town City, played at Hartleyvale, possibly the only ground in the country with standing terraces. In the teeming rain of a Cape winter, it was easy for recent arrivals from Birmingham or Bradford to feel at home.

Later, as a student at Wits, I saw the university team climb into the NFL with talents such as goalkeeper Gary Bailey, who played for Manchester United and England, and the Scotland defender Richard Gough. Nor was the traffic one-way. Even though South Africa was suspended from international football in the 1960s – the final straw was when the white federation proposed sending an all-white team to the 1966 World Cup in England and an all-black side to Mexico in 1970 – there was no restriction on foreign players touring or guesting for local white clubs. Geoff Hurst, George Best and Kevin Keegan played in South Africa in the early 1970s.

Black football was struggling for recognition. A professional league was formed in the early 1960s, but suffered from the suspicions of the white regime about any activity that drew black people in large numbers. Yet it was impossible to suppress the talent of such players as Kaizer Motaung, who spent several seasons in the North American Soccer League before returning to form a new club named after himself and one of his former teams, Atlanta Chiefs. Kaizer Chiefs is probably the best-recognised name in the South African game, not because of their prowess but because of the band who named themselves after the old club of their hero, former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe.

By the 1970s the white football authorities could no longer ignore the sport's mass appeal in the black townships, and contacts developed across the colour line. Finally, in 1976, the white government was persuaded to turn a blind eye to the selection of a mixed team to play a touring side of former Argentina internationals. It was the first time in any major sport that white and black South Africans played together on the same side: those who were there, including me, remember it as a historic occasion.

The match made a star of Jomo Sono, a young Orlando Pirates player who scored four goals in a 5-0 victory, and the following year he joined New York Cosmos. It also made it impossible to go back to segregated football, and the white league fell apart in 1977.

By the time Sono came home in the 1980s, a fully integrated national football league was on its feet. He bought the franchise of Highlands Park, the most successful club in the old NFL, and followed Motaung's example by renaming it Jomo Cosmos.

It took until 1992 for South Africa's complete expulsion from world football, imposed after the Soweto uprising in 1976, to be lifted. Almost immediately the Pirates won the African club championship and the national side, Bafana Bafana or "The Boys", lifted the African Nations' Cup at home in 1996. The country also qualified for the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals.

Both times they went home after the group stage, then they missed out on the World Cup finals in 2006 and this year failed even to qualify for the African tournament. Now South Africa could be the first hosts in World Cup history not to make it out of their group.

The standard of domestic club football gives little cause for confidence. There are successful exports such as Steven Pienaar of Everton, but that appears to be part of the problem, with the PSL largely geared to grooming players for overseas careers.

The influence of sponsors might raise eyebrows, too. The PSL has been won for the past three seasons by SuperSport United, a club bought by the media company which holds the rights to most sports broadcasting in South Africa. Imagine if the Premier League was dominated by a club called Sky United, which incorporated the company logo into the team badge.

When Wits and AmaZulu played their last match in the League, only 1,000 turned up. But Soccer City was full to its 80,000 capacity for the cup final, mainly due to the excitement generated by the World Cup. If some of the fervour generated by the tournament remains when the world's top sides have gone home, there may be hope for a sport which once helped sustain black South Africans during the country's worst times.

In 1998, as Bafana Bafana played France in their first ever match in the World Cup finals, I asked a young black South African how he felt about his football heroes having been excluded for so many years. "Black people had to have endurance then," he told me. "Sport was secondary next to the injustice we suffered. Only now are we free to enjoy sport."