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Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos interacts with players as they do stretching exercises. Picture: LEFTY SHIVAMBU
Bafana Bafana coach Hugo Broos interacts with players as they do stretching exercises. Picture: LEFTY SHIVAMBU

The sorry sight of Bafana Bafana playing a friendly international against Sierra Leone in front of fewer than 500 fans while just two hours later a crowd of 46,000 crammed into Kings Park to watch the Springboks beat Argentina in their last Rugby Championship game of this year’s competition has sparked a lively debate about football culture or the absence of it in SA.

Logic would decree that the Springboks were always going to attract more supporters on the day given that Siya Kolisi’s team were in with a chance of winning the southern hemisphere competition.

In contrast, a struggling Bafana team, ranked 68th in the world, was facing 113th-ranked Sierra Leone in a low-key friendly so no surprise that there was greater interest in the rugby.

Add to that that both teams had no big stars to lure the fans from the comfort of their homes where, if they were interested, they would have been watching the action on television, complete with multiple replays in high definition.

Lots of reasons have been advanced for the poor turnout at the FNB Stadium where the minuscule crowd that turned up at the 94,000-seat venue resembled a lone car in a huge parking lot.

Some of the rationalisations, many of them legitimate, included: no winning culture, poor marketing, weak social media presence and mistrust of the SA Football Association (Safa).

The truth is that poor attendances at Bafana games are nothing new. There is clearly a correlation between the national team’s poor form and the low turnouts for their games. Attendances in Johannesburg have been particularly poor in contrast to other cities such as Mbombela, Polokwane, Durban and Cape Town where fans have turned out in larger numbers whenever they hosted the national team.

There is, sadly and disconcertingly, now no passion and love for the national team unlike in many African countries where fans would queue several hours before kickoff to get into the stadium. Despite the relatively poor economic state of countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many others, games involving the national teams are almost always packed well before kickoff time by passionate fans.

Embarrassment felt

Football is largely the dominant sport in most African countries in contrast to SA, which has world-class rugby and cricket teams, albeit swimming in a much smaller pool.

I vividly recall the embarrassment I felt as a South African when Bafana played Ethiopia in a crucial 2014 World Cup qualifier at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in June 2012.

If anyone had arrived blindfolded at the venue they could have been forgiven for thinking they were at the national stadium in Addis Ababa as the majority of the 7,500 fans that turned up for the game were members of the local Ethiopian community.

It must have felt like a home game for the Walias who were cheered on by their vociferous, flag-waving fans as they managed to secure a vital 1-1 draw. It turned out to be Pitso Mosimane’s last game in charge of Bafana who had extended their winless run to seven games.

For the World Cup qualifier against Burkina Faso in October 2017, Safa even went as far as halving the ticket prices from R100 to R50 to attract fans when it became known that only 300 tickets had been sold three days before the game. It was all in vain.

Similarly there was hardly anyone in the FNB Stadium when Bafana beat Seychelles 6-0 in October 2018 in their 2019 Nations Cup qualifier.

Even when the country hosted the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, the fact that we had been starved of international football did nothing to attract fans to the venues in Durban, Bloemfontein and Gqeberha.

Star attractions

Attendances at the huge stadiums were embarrassing, more so given that African legends such as George Weah, Abedi Pele, Tony Yeboah, Kalusha Bwalya and Hany Ramzy were all in action at the respective venues. Only 7,000 pitched for the semifinal between Zambia and Tunisia at Kings Park which has a capacity of 52,000.

Of course Bafana have played in front of full houses, but the crucial ingredient was the star attractions in the opposition teams. Take, for example, the game against Luiz-Felipe Scolari’s Brazil in March 2015 played in front of a packed FNB Stadium. It didn’t matter too much that Bafana were beaten 5-0 — the fans feasted on seeing stars like Neymar, who netted a hat-trick, Fernandinho, Thiago Silva and David Luiz.

Similarly the house-full signs were up two years earlier when Gordon Igesund’s team beat reigning world champions Spain who had the likes of Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos in their team.

The low ranking of Bafana and their failure to qualify for major tournaments make them unattractive opponents for the world’s bigger teams, unlike in the years just after winning the 1996 Nations Cup when the likes of England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Brazil, France and Egypt visited these shores.

A winning culture, trendy marketing, star attractions in the opposition and taking the team to different parts of the country where they had not played for a while could all help to bring in the crowds to watch Bafana who are in desperate need of love and affection.  

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