Team that truly represents a nation

Robert Block sees South Africans unite behind their proud footballing heroes
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The Independent Online
C heer the beloved country! In 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon, 11 men kitted out in green, gold, black and white jerseys have done almost as much for South Africa's image as a rainbow nation as Nelson Mandela has over the past two years.

On the surface, the stunning victory of Bafana Bafana (as the national side are known) over Tunisia to win the African Nations' Cup means that the last piece of South Africa's miraculous sporting jigsaw fell into place. The team who nobody rated six months ago have followed the extraordinary feats of their rugby and cricket counterparts.

But on a deeper, more significant level, the football coup was a much- needed boost to the country's efforts at nation-building, and a shot in the arm to the process of reconciliation between blacks and whites. With crime and racial tensions still tearing at the country, the notion of a rainbow nation really exists only in beer adverts and on the sporting pitch.

But while much was made about the significance of Chester Williams, the bull-necked wing, and the first and only non-white to play for a South African rugby team, it is hard to deny that rugby was - at least until the World Cup last summer - a game with an overwhelmingly white, Afrikaner, following.

But unlike rugby and unlike cricket, football is the sporting lifeblood of the majority of South Africans. It is played in town and township, on stony village fields and beautiful city pitches. More than any other sport, it cuts across the racial divide, both in terms of players and fans.

Even the most politically naive South African could see just from looking at the makeup of Bafana Bafana that it was a symbol for the new South Africa: a true rainbow team. Black stars like midfielder, Doctor Khumalo, and the Wolverhampton Wanderers striker, Mark Williams, mixed it up on the field with whites like the captain, Neil Tovey, and the midfielder, Eric Tinkler.

Supporters were also colourblind when it came to choosing their idols. The cry of "Feeeesh" every time the midfielder Mark Fish touched the ball was as loud as the shouts for "Shooooes", when John Moshoeu went into action. While, true, at first, there were not many white faces in the stands during South Africa's first matches, by the time the final came around the stands were as mixed as the team itself.

Talent and team-play, not pigmentation, was what counted on the pitch and the fans loved it. White middle-aged ladies wrote poems to their favourite black players and tried to wrap their tongues around the defender Sizwe Motaung's name on radio talk shows. At the same time black fans called Tinkler "Mandela" because, in the words of one man quoted at Saturday's match: "He is our hero".

The symbolic importance of Bafana Bafana's contribution to South Africa was even recognised by the great man himself. Just before the players defeated the No 1 ranked Ghana last week in the semi-finals, President Mandela told the team: "My children, I'm leaving the country and its people in your hands."

If the togetherness and euphoria on display in the aftermath of Saturday's victory is anything to go by, then Mandela chose those hands, and feet, very well indeed. "Bafana Bafana," wrote veteran political commentator Shaun Johnson yesterday, "has wiped the grimace off the face of the nation."

Goals: Williams (73) 0-1; Williams (75) 0-2.

SOUTH AFRICA (4-4-2): Arendse (Cape Town Spurs); Motaung (Mamelodi Sundowns), Radebe (Leeds Utd), Fish (Orlando Pirates), Tovey (Kaizer Chiefs); Buthelezi (Mamelodi Sundowns), Tinkler (Vitoria Setubal), Moshoeu (Kocaelispor), Khumalo (Kaizer Chiefs); Bartlett (Cape Town Spurs), Masinga (Leeds Utd). Substitutes: Mkhalele (Orlando Pirates) for Buthelezi, 51); Williams (Wolverhampton Wanderers) for Masinga, 65.

TUNISIA (4-4-2): El Ouaer (Esperance); Boukadida (Etoile Sahel), Ben Rekhissa (Esperance), Chouchene (Etoile Sahel), Jaballah (AS Marsa); Beya (Etoile Sahel), Bouazizi (Etoile Sahel), Fekih (CS Sfaxien), Godhbane (Etoile Sahel); Sellimi (Club Africain), Ben Slimane (AS Marsa). Substitutes: Hamrouni (Esperance) for Godhbane, h-t; Ben Hassen (Esperance) for Bouazizi, 77.

Referee: C Massembe (Uganda).