By Chris Bishop
It is only 10 years ago? Isn’t it 100, or 1000 years ago? Surely, it seems a, far off, distant world.
On June 11it will be exactly 10 years since Siphiwe Tshabalala sprinted down the left like a dreadlocked gazelle and smacked in one of the sweetest goals in the history of African football. People remember where they were at that split second of the first ever world cup goal in Africa and will tell their grandchildren about it. I know I will.
This was the opening game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup; Tshabalala had the world at his feet and so it seemed did South Africa. For years we had been hearing about the billions that were coming with the world’s finest players and it looked good. Analysts predicted it would be billions in investment.
On that sunny winter afternoon we had got as right and perfectly timed as the Kagisho Dikgacoi through ball to Tshabalala. My fellow journalists and I had fought our way home, through the gridlocked streets, with meat and drink for the masses at my house. Amid the whiff of charcoal and wood the whole house was cooking along with the steaks; people of all creeds and colours hugged and wept as Tshabalala’s goal rattled into the net. I saw my first game at the age of seven, at my grandfather’s knee, and always had this romantic idea that the game could heal the troubles of the world. On that day I believed it.
As night fell all people seemed to think about was getting together. At four the following morning people were still arriving wearily at the party that had steadily acquired the energy of a Brazilian midfield. Many were fresh from the stadium with vuvuzela in hand; horns which they blasted out into the starry African skies from the balcony until their lips went blue. It was late, but few people were sleeping; even people who didn’t like football were swept up in it.
Weeks later, my wife and I drove to Bloemfontein and found ourselves behind the South African team coach. It was a touching drive; at every village and small dot on the map teachers led crowds of children from school to the side of the road to wave and cheer their national team on. I smiled behind the wheel, in the slipstream of the coach, with the thought of how many of those children would be inspired to do something with their lives in that moment.
The other day, in lockdown, I watched a documentary on the world cup portraying a nation confident and free and multi-coloured and proud. I shed a few tears for lost days of promise and splendour.
It is a shame that, a decade on, a deadlier striker than Tshabalala – COVID who wears number 19 – is causing as much disappointment as the goal that cancelled out his stunning effort against Mexico on that sunny winter’s afternoon.
For a start COVID-19 has stopped football and the good feeling that comes with it, dead in its tracks. In 2010, people in football shirts were waltzing through the streets and shopping malls like Lionel Messi; ten years on those same people are shuffling through lockdown restrictions with the gloom of a wet Sunday. Millions of jobs will go and the majority of companies are set to collapse. The flow of tourism income that flowed from publicity around the world has dried to a trickle.
Yet, where there is life there is hope and history teaches us this. In 1964, Nelson Mandela shuffled in chains and short trousers, through the cold, to his cell on Robben Island with the prospect of dying behind bars. Forty years later he smiled and held the golden world cup trophy high before the eyes of the world as South Africa won the bid to stage Africa’s first ever tournament. Who would have thought it?
Newsflash – It is 2030 and the South African economy turns itself around to prosperity with nerve, steel, hard work and concord between government and private business. Who would believe it? We have to.