If there was one sport that helped South Africans overcome a racially segregated society that kept Blacks down under the country’s apartheid system – it was soccer. And as South Africans prepare to host the 2010 World Cup, once again its soccer that continues to unite the entire nation.
Soccer in South Africa dates back at least to the 1860s, when white soldiers and civil servants played matches in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. And by 1880, Black and Indian clubs were active.
The whites-only South African Football Association was formed in 1892 and Black leagues were taking root by the 1920s. In 1935, the first official interracial tournament was launched.
Those early interracial matches had historic significance. The African National Congress – which became the main force challenging the apartheid system (1948-94) – got involved in soccer as a match sponsor and as a way to fight for civil rights.
Many ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, played soccer in their dusty prison yard on Robben Island as a way to keep up their spirits and camaraderie.
After an intense international campaign, Mandela won his freedom in 1990, and later was elected the country’s first black president in 1994, in the nation’s first democratic elections in its history.
Mandela is credited in bringing the country together during his support for the nearly all-white national rugby team when it won the World Cup in 1995. His support for the team was a remarkable gesture on national unity given the sport was most cherished by the white Afrikaners who had created and maintained the apartheid system.
The governing body of international soccer, FIFA, admitted South Africa as a member in 1952, but suspended it in 1961 because of its segregation policies. The team was expelled in 1976 after several hundred black youth were killed by apartheid police in nationwide protests against apartheid, known as the Soweto uprisings.
The South African national team was eventually reinstated in 1992, as apartheid was crumbling.
Today, excitement and hope has swept across the country as the national team known as Bafana Bafana, “the Boys” in Zulu, prepares to open the World Cup in a match against Mexico on Friday, June 11.
For the first time the World Cup is being hosted on African soil giving South Africa an unparalleled opportunity to showcase its rich culture, pride and progress since the oppressive days of apartheid.
Although many agree the time has come for South Africa to shine, the country continues to struggle with extreme challenges such as rampant poverty and disease.
Unemployment hovers around 27 percent and the average monthly income is less than $400. Most of the country’s avid soccer fans earn far less. HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malnutrition, crime and homelessness are a daily reality for millions.
To top it off soccer experts predict that Bafana Bafana, ranked 83rd in the world, will most likely not make it out of the first round.
But despite predictions, good or bad, South Africa has overcome so many obstacles in its path, and many believe at the end of the day the country and its people are already winners.
So much so that the country’s largest union federation, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions has urged employees to let their staff off early on opening day to celebrate and soke in the glory.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and workers should be allowed to be with their families to watch the opening game,” the union’s Cape Town branch said in a statement.
Others note that neither soccer nor the World Cup will eradicate poverty or cure terrible diseases, but the sport can have a significant impact in how such challenges can be tackled.
South African President Jacob Zuma speaking at a state banquet welcoming the FIFA family recently said opening week of the World Cup marks a historic moment in the life of the nation and the African continent as a whole.
“The journey that we traveled to achieve our freedom and democracy is marked by the struggles and sacrifices of many South Africans,” he said. “We now proudly say that we are one nation united in its diversity, with a Constitution which declares that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”
Zuma summed up the spirit of the country, “The nation is celebrating like never before. South Africa has come alive, and will never be the same again after this World Cup.”
Photo: In this May 25 photo, a local team poses for a team photo before a soccer match, at the Matikiring sports ground,near Lichtenburg, in the rural part of northern South Africa. The government’s youth development agency brought a portable party to Lichtenburg that week as part of a campaign to ensure South Africans in remote parts of the country get a long-awaited taste of the World Cup. (Denis Farrell/AP)