World Cup: Long march to a let-down

From a cinema in Johannesburg: Raymond Whitaker watches South Africa's debut
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ON Friday night South Africa entered the World Cup for the first time. And in unlovely Johannesburg, where more appropriate to watch Bafana Bafana ("The Boys") take on France than the big screen at the Top Star open-air cinema, built on top of a waste mountain from the gold mines?

A powerfully amplified band and braziers made of punctured oil drums did their best to keep off the chill of late autumn on the high veld, but the overwhelmingly black crowd was fuelled chiefly on Castle lager and hope. South Africa has enjoyed many sporting debuts since it rejoined the world, but this had more significance than most: football is the passion of the majority community, and while the odd non-white face appears in the country's cricket and rugby teams, Bafana Bafana truly reflect the rainbow nation in all its colours.

Patrick ("call me Sugar") and John, both fanatical Orlando Pirates supporters, had brought their girlfriends, Zandile and Lindiwe, along. Their ability to pay the modest-sounding 30 rands a head entrance fee, less than pounds 4 at the current depressed exchange rate, marked them out as relative yuppies by black South African standards - Patrick is a sales manager for a furniture company, John works in insurance, Zandile is a banker and Lindiwe a student.

While the foursome washed down a bowl of peanuts with plenty of cider and lager, John assessed Bafana Bafana's chances: "I realistically think they can reach the quarter-finals." But as the commentator pointed out, no host team had ever lost their opening match in the World Cup finals. "Now we have got a game on our hands. We have a mountain to climb," John said after Christophe Dugarry put France ahead, proving that some cliches are universal.

At half-time the band led a few chants of "It isn't over until it's over!" and "2-1, 2-1!" but then Pierre Issa crowned a night of precedents by putting through the first own goal ever scored by a South African in an international. Sugar and John tried to maintain their spirits by pointing out the Orlando Pirates pedigree of such players as Benedict McCarthy (now with Ajax) and Helman "Midnight Express" Mkhelele (now with Besiktas in Turkey) - "we would never have heard of these clubs or countries in the old days" - but the inability of the South African midfield to match the French was beginning to get them down. When France scored for the third time Sugar smashed the peanut bowl. "Now I'm depressed," he said.

At the end only half the crowd stayed around to see if the band could get a party mood going again. John was more inclined to be reflective amid the disappointment. When I asked him how black fans felt at seeing their football heroes excluded from international competition for so many years because of the crimes of their white oppressors, he replied: "Black people had to have endurance then. Sport was secondary next to the injustice we suffered. Only now are we free to enjoy sport." Even if there wasn't much to celebrate this time.