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Rainbow Nation: The Force Awakens

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ForceAwakens

As I stare out of the train window, watching the neatly-spaced Dutch farms flash past, I spot a faint rainbow on the horizon. Make no mistake, during this time of year the weather is miserable. But thanks to El Nino (or the weather gods), the Dutch have had a ‘light’ winter so far, meaning that once every few days you can actually see the sun. My attention is drawn to the rainbow: it is unlike the rainbows we get in South Africa. There they appear after a thunderstorm, shiny and brilliant, connecting one side of the horizon with the other, and signalling the arrival of fine weather. This one, instead, sits low and distant. It signals the coming of rain.

Trains are wonderful for thinking, and I’m thinking about the year that’s been. One thing is certain: 2015 won’t be a year we are likely to forget. Globally, the Syrian war had far-reaching geopolitical repercussions: hundreds-of-thousands of refugees are still streaming into Lebanon and Turkey with a few thousand lucky ones ending in Sweden or Germany or Canada; the continued emergence of radical terrorist organisations resulted in the tragic events of Garissa, Kenya (148 students), of Sousse, Tunisia (38 people), of Paris, France (130 people), to name a few; the near-Grexit and the shift towards a more fragmented Europe; the rise of xenophobia and, most recently, Islamophobia, notably in that country most famous for freedom and opportunity. Russia and Brazil’s economies are tanking: the expected GDP growth per capita of both these countries is -3.8%. The world at the moment, it seems, is fragile.

But my thoughts are mostly with my own country. I don’t think many would disagree that 2015 was one of the most tumultuous years South Africa has had as a democracy. Yes, in 1998 interest rates moved upwards of 20% following the Asian crisis. The Rand collapsed after 9/11. In 2008 we experienced country-wide xenophobic attacks. We’ve had periods of extended strikes, notably after the 2010 World Cup and again in 2014. And 41 mine workers were killed by police at Marikana in 2012.

But 2015 felt more intense: the EFF was forcibly removed from parliament in February; in April, at least seven foreign nationals were killed in violent xenophobic attacks, and the firing of Finance Minister Nene in early December sent the Rand into uncharted territory. But the major events of 2015 emerged from an unlikely source: the leafy, calm campuses of some of South Africa’s best universities. Rhodes fell. Verwoerd was moved. Students, angered by the slow transformation of university infrastructure, curricula, and personnel,  staged sit-ins, occupied public spaces, toppled statues, renamed buildings, and ultimately halted the sharp increases in student fees that had become the norm.

But these protests did more than just halt fee increases: they gave rise to a movement for social change that moved beyond party politics. They empowered rather than disempowered. They weren’t exclusively black, although they did – and continue to – confront the notion of white privilege. In truth, it is a conversation we should have had a long time ago but which, perhaps, needed the frankness of a new generation.

As I reflect on my own conversations with colleagues and students, one thing stands out quite prominently: the rise of female leadership. Of course, there had been female political leaders before: both the mayor of Cape Town and the premier of the Western Cape are female, for example, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, won Time’s prestigious Person of the Year award. But across South African campuses, women leaders rose to the fore. Their influence, I suspect, is a major reason the movement remained non-violent, even in the most testing times of police brutality.

My thoughts continue to return to a conversation I had with one such student leader earlier this year. We spoke about Stellenbosch and the difficulty of black students to call it home, when she remarked: ‘Johan, we don’t live in a world of rainbows and fairies. The Rainbow Nation is dead.’ I wanted to appeal, but had no immediate response. She had made her point.

I think about what has happened since that conversation: to Rhodes, to Verwoerd, to Blade, to Zuma. There is no doubt that the Rainbow Nation my generation envisaged has not materialised. (No matter how hard I try, though, I cannot let go of the euphoria I feel when thinking of the young, promising country, for me best memorialized in this (an inevitable sport) moment. Just watch the last seven minutes.)

But let’s not dismiss the idea of a Rainbow Nation entirely. There’s been an awakening. The rainbows and fairies may be gone, but the inclusive and passionate student movements of 2015, to me at least, suggest a different kind of rainbow. One that is less shiny and brilliant. One that is not entirely complete. One that signals the coming of the rain.

And in a country scorched, rain is exactly what we need.

*This is my 42nd and final post of 2015. During the last 12 months, more than 100 000 unique visitors arrived here. As always, I have to thank my lovely wife Helanya for her patience and proofreading skills. Because of the success of the blog, I’ve been offered a contract to write a monthly column for Rapport (in Afrikaans) and Finweek (in English) in 2016, a challenge I look forward to. Do have a blessed festive season. Travel safely. Rest.

And, finally, if you’re worried about the global economy, look at it this way: Ethiopia, India, the DRC, China and Bangladesh are predicted to grow at more than 5% in 2015. They are unlikely to slow down significantly next year. Together, they comprise 41% of the world’s population. That is still improvement on unprecedented scale. We’ll be all right.

How this man added more than 6000 jobs to the South African economy. With his left hand.

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Henry

On 18 November 2009, with 17 minutes left of extra time in a play-off FIFA World Cup game between the Republic of Ireland and France, Thierry Henry, France’s striker, handled the ball in the in-goal area, deflecting it to William Gallas who headed it into the back of the net. The goal allowed France to draw the game and win the play-off series of two games by two goals to one, which meant they qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa while the Republic of Ireland did not.

Henry’s handball, I argue in a new paper with María Santana-Gallego, added close to R1 billion to the South African economy in tourism expenditure. Had Ireland qualified, far fewer tourists would have visited South Africa, as Ireland is a much smaller country (5 million vs France’s 66 million inhabitants). We use a gravity model to run counterfactual results: what would have happened had Ireland qualified instead of France?

France’s participation meant that 36,482 additional French tourists visited South Africa in 2010. In contrast, had Ireland qualified, our model predicts that only 8,234 additional Irish tourists would have arrived. The difference of 28,248 means that the ‘hand of Henry’ added R333 million in tourism expenditure during 2010 alone. The legacy effect is equally large: in the three years following the event, an additional 60,960 French tourists came to South Africa, whereas only 14,784 Irish tourists would have come had Ireland qualified for the finals. This means that tourism expenditure in South Africa during the three years following the World Cup was R545 million more because France qualified. In total, the ‘hand of Henry’ increased tourism expenditure in South Africa by an astonishing R878 million, or, using the shorthand of 12 additional tourists for each extra job, provided 6,202 more jobs.

The R1 billion touch... Thierry Henry in action against Ireland.

The R1 billion touch… Thierry Henry in action against Ireland.

The aim of our paper is to show that the tourism impact of mega-sport events like the FIFA World Cup is highly unpredictable, as it depends to a large extend on the which 32 countries qualify. Had Russia qualified instead of tiny Slovenia, or Egypt qualified instead of Algeria (both were involved in play-off games against the other), our model predicts that the South African economy would have benefited significantly more.

This, of course, is not directly useful information for tourism managers, as they cannot engineer such incidents, or influence the outcome of a play-off. But they could gear their expectations of tourist arrivals to the results of the qualification rounds. What is clear is that much of the economic impact of a mega-event like the World Cup can be determined by the random outcome of a single play-off game – or even, as in the ‘hand of Henry’ case, the ‘butterfly effect’ of a single incident.

Perhaps there’s a reason that Henry is considered a demi-god by Arsenal fans: It’s not every man that can create 6000 jobs in a split second. And do so by simply touching a ball (illegally) with his left hand.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 24, 2015 at 20:57

The incredible AB

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SwingLikeAB

It is difficult to find appropriate adjectives to explain Abraham Benjamin de Villiers’s World Cup performance yesterday. I was there, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, when AB demolished the West Indian bowling: swishing, sloshing and smashing their bowling to all parts of the ground. There was one reverse-sweep off the fast bowling of the West Indian captain which defied belief. AB scored 162 off 66 balls, the fastest 150 ever scored, a record he should have had earlier this year, when he demolished the same West Indian team in Johannesburg, scoring 149 off 44 balls. (I remember critics saying that Johannesburg is a small ground and high above sea level. Well, I can tell you, the SCG is none of those things.)

It started relatively slow. Helanya and I had made a poster specifically for the game – Float like a butterfly, stwing like AB – and after AB walked in, we had to wait several overs before he scored his first boundary and we could lift it high. (While we didn’t make it onto TV, Shaun Pollock did tweet – Float like a butterfly, sting like AB – either through incredible coincidence or because he saw our poster at the ground. Did I just fly halfway across the globe to have my poster plagiarised by Polly?*)

I don’t think the current generation of South African kids really appreciate just how special a cricketer AB is. I know the game has evolved, that it’s ‘a batsman’s game’, but to play the shots AB did yesterday against a bowling attack that, at least initially, showed determination to be accurate and consistent, requires something special. Where South Africa’s other batsmen struggled to force the scoring rate, AB had the ability to seamlessly leap to a higher level, creating boundaries from balls that should be no more than singles down the ground. The way he scooped the fast bowlers, for example, adjusting to the speed and bounce of the pitch, was extraordinary. He seems to bat with a sixth sense.

It was an incredible night and great to see so many South African supporters. We were still a bit jet-lagged (having arrived the day before), but AB’s innings quickly extinguished any yawns we might have had. He seems to have smashed South Africa’s confidence right back, and that can only be good for us in the rest of the tournament. We’ll be in Canberra for the next game. And Polly, we’ll have another poster for you too.

*After my post, Shaun Pollock sent me the following tweet: “My friend sent it to me after AB got his 100 at the Wanderers, enjoy your trip!” Thus: apologies for crying plagiarism. It seems like great minds do indeed think alike!

Written by Johan Fourie

February 28, 2015 at 01:01

This is how to transform cricket in South Africa

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Rabada

What South Africa’s first match against Zimbabwe in this year’s Cricket World Cup made abundantly clear, is that Zimbabwe’s national cricket team is much more representative of their country’s demography. Not one ethnically black (or ‘African black’) player was in South Africa’s starting eleven; our country’s demography (roughly: 80% ethnically black, 9% Coloured, 9% white and 2% Asian/other) is nearly the exact opposite of our national team demography (in the last Test match: 9% black, 18% Coloured, 64% white and 9% Asian/other). That is disappointing after two decades of democracy.

But it’s not as if there’s many black players clamoring for selection: Aaron Phangiso is the only ethnically black player in the group, and he will find it difficult to replace our incumbent spinner, Imran Tahir, who has become an ODI wonderkid. The pipeline is also pretty empty: I don’t know whether Kagiso Rabada, a right-arm fast bowler that destroyed Australia in the semi-final of the u/19 World Cup last year and ended the tournament as the highest South African wicket taker, will be a star Protea bowler one day. All I know is that he has the potential to be a star, which is why the national selectors thought it wise to select him for the national T20 side, only to be smashed by Australia. Let’s hope he learns, hopefully with his self-belief and confidence intact, and that he isn’t pushed too hard too fast.

Unfortunately, Kagiso is the exception rather than the rule. Since the democratic transition in 1994, very few ethnically black players have played in the Test side; Makhaya Ntini being the only one that could keep his place for an extended period of time. Of course, this is not a problem unique to cricket; the current Springbok side is as white as what it was in 1995 when it won the World Cup for the first time. But cricket’s failure to grow ethnically black talent seems to be particularly acute.

No one is disputing the fact that we need more black players to be selected for the Proteas. I think it is fair to say that Makhaya Ntini was a favourite not only among black fans; he was a favourite to all because he was entertaining and hard-working and brilliant. Yet no more Ntini’s have come through the system. I’ve written before on why that is. To summarize: cricket is expensive, in terms of time and resources. It is incredibly difficult for a young kid from an impoverished background to have access to good coaching, facilities and family support that will allow him to compete on a level playing field against richer kids. In South Africa, the poorest 80% of the population is almost entirely black. And because cricket skills are developed from a young age, black kids in poor schools simply cannot compete against their wealthier white compatriots. It is also why, if you really want to change the system, you have to start in school.

Which is exactly the opposite approach Cricket South Africa has taken. Last year, the University Sport South Africa (USSA) Cricket Week enforced quotas for different race groups. Each team had to field 3 ‘players of colour’, one of which had to be ethnically black. Teams struggled to fill the quota, some having to field only 9 players because they could not meet the quota requirements. In 2015, the quotas will increase to 4 players of colour, 2 ethnically black. In 2016, it will be 6 players of colour, three ethnically black. It is impossible to see, given current trends, how most universities will be able to adhere to these requirements without 1) putting players without the required ability at risk of injury and 2) without discouraging good players from playing cricket.

Quotas are useful when there is evidence of racism: if there are enough black players that can be selected but coaches or managers choose to ignore them. Such racism is irrational because coaches are supposed to pick the best players to win the tournament, and if they discriminate against black players then they hurt their own chances of success. In such an environment, quotas would force racist coaches to pick the black players instead of the inferior white players.

I doubt that this is what is happening at universities, though. In my discussions with university managers and players, they spend an inordinate amount of time scouting for black talent. The few black players that are available are headhunted by all universities, with promises of bursaries and free tuition. And in some cases, the really good ones, like my Masters student and former Stellenbosch captain, Omphile Ramela, are drafted to the provincial side, where quotas also mean that those coaches are frantically looking for even more promising black players.

Let me phrase this in terms of economics. Racial quotas shift the demand curve for black players, but does nothing about the supply side. The only way you shift the supply side, as any first year Economics student should know, is by improving technology and thus productivity. So the standard response to ‘how do we get more black kids in sport’ is not ‘force teams to play them’ but ‘build better facilities in schools’.

Yet we are clearly not building better facilities in schools, or providing better coaching, or, at least, we are not doing it fast enough. And yet, politicians and, in most cases, fans (myself included) want to see faster progress. A different answer is clearly needed.

So, Cricket South Africa, here is my suggestion: allow the private market to develop black talent. Economists know that the best way to ensure a steady supply of any good is to get the incentives right. And to get the incentives right, in this case, would require some financial support. Instead of a quota at the USSA Cricket Week, allow teams to pick any player they want to. But for every ethnically black player they field, pay them R500 000 (or R100 000 per match). For every Coloured player, pay them R250 000 (or R50 000 per match). If all teams pick only black players, Cricket South Africa would need a maximum budget of R50 million to stage the tournament. Do this every year for at least 10 years. (To ensure that universities play to win, give an additional R5 million in prize money.)

What is likely to happen? University coaches will react to these incentives swiftly. They will realise that it can be incredibly lucrative to field a team with several black players. They can therefore plan to invest their future earnings today; spend the next two years finding black players, nurturing and developing them (an expensive exercise), offer them bursaries (even more expensive), and fielding them in three years’ time. Intermediaries – good development coaches with an eye for talent – will realise that if they invest in black young kids with potential, universities will be willing and able to buy these players from them: expect the creation of numerous (profitable) cricket academies around the country that will improve access for black kids to better facilities and better coaching.  The result is that a much larger pool of black talent will emerge, allowing provinces to pick and choose and the national team to prosper.

R500 million over a ten year period is a lot of money. But I suspect not more than R200 million will be needed, as good white players will still be selected (especially if there is a financial reward for winning). If the government (perhaps with the help of sponsors) are serious about transformation in sport, they need to put their money where their mouth is. And because much of the money will go into bursaries, this type of spending has large positive externalities too.

Quotas, although easy to enforce, won’t solve the shortage of professional black cricketers. If we want to produce a Makhaya Ntini or Kagiso Rabada every year, a well-funded system that gets the incentives right is the only viable alternative.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 20, 2015 at 08:01

In memory of Phillip Hughes

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Kids in Mumbai, India pay tribute to the memory of Phillip Hughes. Source.

Kids in Mumbai, India pay tribute to the memory of Phillip Hughes. Source.

The reaction to the death of Phillip Hughes this week has been nothing short of overwhelming. Hughes died tragically after being hit on the head by a bouncer playing in an Australian provincial cricket game. He lost conciousness less than 10 seconds after being hit, and never regained it. His death was announced two days later. Here is the report in Australian media showing on-field events.

Tributes to Hughes’ family and team mates have poured in from all over the world. His death has touched me and my cricket-loving friends too. Even though we are all amateur cricket players, playing at school and university and perhaps the odd club game afterwards, we share in the camaraderie of the game. As batsmen, we have had to face fast bowling too, and shared the fear and doubt of playing the short ball. There is always the risk of misjudging a pull shot or the bad luck of an uneven pitch. Hughes’ freak accident, and it is nothing more than that, has put all these doubts in perspective.

Google pay tribute too

Google pays tribute too.

How cricket is played will not change much because of this event. Bowlers will – and should – continue to bowl bouncers. If anything, I suspect more batsmen worldwide will 1) understand the importance of wearing a helmet, and 2) be more circumspect in their approach to playing the bouncer. (This includes kids: I still have the scars of a bouncer that hit my mouth in grade 11. Only then did I realise that a helmet was essential.) But I suspect the psychological and emotional scars will run much deeper. Hughes was the smile, the friendly face of the Australian team. Not only that, but he was the nexus of an Australian team that was often divided. Here are the opening lines of the obituary on Cricinfo:

Michael Clarke and Ricky Ponting. David Warner and Shane Watson. Simon Katich and Justin Langer. Brad Haddin and Matthew Wade. Darren Lehmann and Brett Lee.

These strong men of Australian cricket have often had very little in common. Their competitiveness, pride and differences of opinion have caused plenty of arguments and disagreements. Apart from the baggy-green cap, there was often only one thing that they all agreed on: Phillip Hughes.

His death will make all these squabbles seem petty. The impact on the Australian team can already be seen in this touching press-conference by Australian captain Michael Clarke earlier today. Spare a moment for Sean Abbott, too, the bowler who had probably bowled hundreds of bouncers like that in his career. He will find it hard to return to the playing field.

It is often after tragic events that we re-evaluate what we do and why we do it. The next time I walk in to bat, I will do so with a smile on my face.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 29, 2014 at 07:18

Wanted: black Springboks

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South Africa's Mtawarira reacts as Habana is clear to score a try during their rugby test match against Italy in Durban

Tomorrow the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, play New Zealand, their most formidable rivals in arguably the toughest rugby match of the year. Last year I watched the game in a tiny South African underground pub close to the Panthéon in Paris. It was awesome except, of course, for the result, which was largely due to a silly decision by the referee to send off Bismarck du Plessis for a fair tackle on Dan Carter. This year promises to be even more entertaining: South Africa has selected a young flyhalf after losing to Australia the previous week in a game again affected by the heavy hand of the referee. (It must be said, though, that no one deserved to win that game. It was an awful game of rugby.)

But instead of chatter about flyhalfs, forwards, referee decisions or Jeanne de Villiers’ centennial test match, the largest game of the year has been overshadowed by the plans of the South Africa Rugby Union, published last Sunday in Afrikaans newspaper Rapport, to have at least a 50% quota of black players in the 2019 Springbok team. To achieve this, the Springbok coach will be ‘requested’ to ensure that at least 7 of the 23 players in his squad to go to the World Cup in England next year are not white, of which 5 have to play and 2 have to be African black. Similar quotas have also been put in place for the South African sevens team, the /19 team, provincial coaches, and referees.

Quotas are not new to the South African landscape; they have been touted as possible interventions to address what I think most South Africans can agree with: that there is too little representation of black South Africans in the national rugby team. Against Australia last week, only one black player, Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira, was in the starting fifteen. He was replaced late in the second half by Trevor Nyakane, the only other black player in the squad. Bryan Habana, who happened to play in his 100th game for the Springboks, and Cornal Hendricks were the only two other non-white players in the starting team.

Because few would question the goal of greater representation, the question really is whether a quota is the right way to achieve it and, if not, what the alternatives are. Max du Preez and Gareth van Onselen took opposing views on this. (Do yourself a favour and don’t read the comments to the Du Preez piece.) Du Preez says yes, quotas are necessary. Van Onselen says no it’s not. Both raise valid points: Du Preez argues that more than 20 years after South Africa became a democracy, quotas are necessary to ensure that coaches give black players a chance: “When two players in the same position have more or less the same talent and ability, you obviously pick the black one to restore the balance and build a new rugby culture.” Van Onselen disagrees that quotas are the way to do this: “As for coaches who sideline or discount deserving black talent, they should be fired”. He doesn’t really propose any alternative to more rapid transformation.

Both commentators however miss what I believe is the most important factor: the majority of black players are not in schools where they get the necessary coaching that makes a successful Springbok. Rugby has changed. It is no longer a sport where you can simply pick up a ball and run your proverbial way into the provincial and national teams.* The top schools are elite academies where they coach their best players with nutrition, fitness, and technical advice that one needs to succeed. They have good equipment, good infrastructure and offer their players constant exposure to other top talent, allowing them to improve faster.

There is really only a small number of schools that have these facilities, and they tend to dominate provincial and national teams. To prove this point, consider this list of all players that has ever represented South Africa. All 793 players came from only 295 schools high schools, less than 5% of the total number of high schools in South Africa today (6591). Of these 295 schools, a third of all players to every play for the Springboks come from only ten schools. (If you wanted to be fancy you could calculate a Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality in society. South Africa’s rugby Gini is 0.52. This is of schools that at least produced one Springbok. If I were to include all schools, the Gini would be above 0.91, much higher than a measure of income inequality.) Or if you don’t believe that the older statistics matter, just consider the Springbok team to play the All Blacks tomorrow: 8 of the 15 players in the starting fifteen went to one of the top ten schools on the all-time list.

That means that if we are to ensure that more black players play for South Africa, it is not enough to simply say that coaching facilities at poor schools should improve. Even if these facilities improve, the kids won’t have access to all the other elite skills that they nowadays need to be a professional rugby player: gym sessions, nutritional advice, specialised coaching and frequent competition. Even a white kid with potential would have a far bigger chance of becoming a Springbok if he attends one of the top ten schools, than if he was to attend a school that had never produced a Springbok.

Different to the kind of comments you might read on news sites, it is not that the talent is not available.  If South Africa had to pick seven black players tomorrow, we could. Among the forwards, Siya Kolisi has recently shown some the form that first made him a crowd favourite while Cheetah flanker Teboho Mohoje is already in the Springbok squad. Nazeem Carr and Lubabalo Mtyanda have been stand-out performers for Western Province and the Pumas respectively. At the back, Lwazi Mvovo still impresses with his speed, although he has perhaps met his match with Western Province and Sevens star Seabelo Senatla. And it’s difficult not to get excited about Juan de Jongh’s and especially Cheslin Kolbe‘s mazy runs. Yet it should be noted that all of these (black) players attended former Model-C schools, with five of those schools ranked in the top 50 on the above list (and 2 in the top 10). Which proves my point that it is really only the top rugby schools where talent can be nurtured well enough to reach the level required to play for the Springboks.

Because quotas, unfortunately, do not work. Economists know that they can create perverse incentives: It is not only demoralising for a player to know he’s preferred to someone else based on something else besides his skill-level, but quotas will cause wages of good black players to rise sharply in contrast to white players (especially those white players that compete in the same positions with black players). That could lead to interesting team dynamics. Expect less player rotation and more player burn-out as the best black players will be ‘forced’ by their unions to play as many games as possible. Also, expect to see more players from other African countries – or even African American players – because the quotas seem to be about race, not nationality. (WP has already acquired the services of a very skilled Kenyan.) It is not entirely coincidental that when Zimbabwean-born Beast Mtawarira showed the potential he did, there was a hasty process to grant him South African citizenship.

In a utopian world, SARU would roll out clinics and infrastructure and coaches to all of South Africa’s poorest schools and do what everyone loves to call “grassroots development”. That is nice, but it won’t get more black players in the national team. The only way to do that is to grant large numbers of bursaries to black children that shows ability to attend the elite rugby schools around South Africa. Let me put this more practically: The only way to ensure a 50% black Springbok team (with no quotas) in a decade is if SARU identify the top 1000 u/13, u/14 and u/15 black players and ensure that they all receive full bursaries to attend one of the top 20 schools in the country. And the best is: it won’t be that difficult to implement. Give support at higher levels too. Many black players do well at group-age level, but struggle to make the transition to professional player. That is because black students often face high financial demands from family or don’t have the financial support structures that more affluent white kids have. SARU can support provincial rugby academies to provide a holistic approach to player development. And why not start a South African B-team, with a 90% black selection criteria, to play frequently against high-quality opposition? There would be an audience for that, too, I promise.

None of this is perfectly fair to everyone. There will still be many black kids that are excluded, the same as there are many white kids who are not exposed to soccer. But providing bursaries to kids with potential is a far more equitable (and realistic) approach than a quota system that will at best create unnecessary tensions and at worst fall flat (and cause much collateral damage) as such attempts have done in the past. Not only will bursaries broaden the pool of potential Springboks, but it will do so in a way that avoids the artificiality of affirmative action in the national team.

*There are exceptions, of course, like this guy.

An ode to the beautiful game

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Ke Nako: At my first World Cup game in 2010, Cape Town stadium

Ke Nako: Before my first World Cup game in 2010, Cape Town stadium

They don’t call it the beautiful game for nothing. The FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on Thursday night when Brazil hosts Croatia, is, by all accounts, the most global of events. More than half of the global population will watch at least one game live. And there are many on-field clashes to whet the appetite: the finalists of South Africa four years ago, Spain and the Netherlands, face each other in the group stage on Friday night; the Rumble in the Jungle (England vs Italy play in the capital city of Amazonia on Saturday); Portugal vs Germany on Monday the 16th. Many pundits believe it is Brazil’s World Cup to lose. I don’t think they will have it that easy. Argentina, Germany and Spain are excellent contenders. Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Holland and Belgium are good bets. But if I had to put money on an outside chance, I’ll go with France. And then there are the superstars who would want to shine on the world stage. Messi, Ronaldo, Robben, Neymar, Balotelli. New stars will be born – Paul Pogba (France), James Rodriquez (Colombia), Christian Atsu (Ghana) – and some will see their last flicker (Pirlo, Gerrard, Drogba). Yet the World Cup is not only about football teams or players. All across the world, Fantasy teams are being drafted. For the next few weeks, household schedules will change. Pubs and bars will be packed, the meeting place for new and old friends. There will be tears of joy and tears of sadness. Memories will be made.

As the excitement builds for the Brazilian party, I have to admit a certain nostalgia for what can only be described as one of the most memorable sporting events South Africa would ever host. And not only because South Africa did exceptionally well as a host, but because of the vivid memories I have of the tournament. See, Coetzee, Gustav and I traversed our beautiful country in search of the beautiful game. I was fortunate to attend eight games, driving roughly 5000 km to watch the likes of Spain, Holland, Brazil, England and Italy play. I have many memories of that road trip, but two stand out. The first is of watching South Africa play France in the final group game. Even though we had to win by three goals – which was nearly impossible against a good, if distracted, French side – that day in Bloemfontein will remain vividly for the exhilaration of the crowd. I know those vuvuzelas sounded on TV like a beehive on loudspeaker, but inside the stadiums they were awesome. Especially if you had a ‘conductor’, someone, usually on the upper end of the scale, who would, during a lull in the game, stand up, turn around and start blowing on his vuvuzela with a slow, marching beat. The challenge would be to see how many vuvuzelas he can recruit to his tune. Obviously, if there were several ‘conductors’, it’s one big cacophony. But in the case of that particular game, especially after South Africa scored first, the vuvuzela beat was, for a few minutes, in complete unison in a full stadium. We were one big army marching as one for our team. I knew then that there was no way France was ever going to win that game.

The second memory is of the Dutch beating Brazil in Port Elizabeth. Because we had arrived way too early, the three of us (with another friend, Willem), had waited patiently outside the area where the players would arrive. Brazil arrived first, the curtains of their bus closed so that there was no way to spot any of their superstars. In contrast, when the Dutch arrived, we could identify nearly every player. It was then that Coetzee made eye-contact with Wesley Snijder, the Dutch midfielder, who returned Coetzee’s wave with a smile and a nod. Wesley Snijder went on to assist both goals as the Dutch clawed their way back against an impressive Brazilian team. Coetzee still believes that the Dutch should thank him for his contribution to their win.

The World Cup was not only a personal highlight, but it did wonders for our country too. I don’t deny that some stadiums remain underutilized and perhaps should simply be dismantled. And I certainly don’t appreciate the way FIFA, the organising body, goes about its business. But the airport, rail and road infrastructure that had been planned in South Africa long before we won the bid to host the World Cup may still not be complete had the World Cup never happened. And the impact of the event on the image of South Africa, and Africa in general, I believe, has been larger than we might think. We’ve certainly seen an increase in tourism, especially from countries outside our traditional markets, like Argentina and Brazil. And even though three reputable sport economists, Thomas Peeters, Victor Matheson, and Stefan Szymanski, claim in a recent article published in the Journal of African Economies that the per tourist cost of the World Cup was much higher than the government claims, I still think that on a cost-benefit analysis we come out positive. (Peeters et al. make a rather strong assumption: they ignore any tourist arrivals from other African countries. If these additional tourists are included, the numbers change significantly.) I’ve written about this before, and said something along these lines recently to CNN Money.

During the 2010 World Cup, I was still unmarried and shared a flat with a friend. I was about to leave on a four month study trip abroad, and still had to write most of my PhD. And I still had not met Jerry (our cat). How things have changed! Unfortunately, I won’t be in Brazil for this year’s event. But I’m sure that, when the next World Cup rolls along in four years’ time, I’ll think back to 2014 and reminisce about the past four years, and perhaps to the memories created during the coming four weeks. Which means that World Cup is somehow more than a sporting event. It is a beacon that maps the lives of millions of fans around the world. A beacon that, as Simon Kuper writes, we share collectively, that unites us as a global community. And that is what makes it the beautiful game.