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Color Bind

Unusual South African Soccer Tournament in 1974 May Have Hastened the End of Apartheid and a Bid to Host World Cup

July 03, 2000|DOUG CRESS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We carried blacks, all South African blacks, on our shoulders that night. You can't imagine how heavy that was.

--Patrick Ntsoelengoe, Black XI soccer player

*

Back then, Jomo Sono was not allowed into the posh Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein. Certainly not to play soccer, and certainly not after dark. After all, South Africa's policy of apartheid was about keeping the races as separate and unequal as possible, even for the best black athletes of a generation.

Yet on the night of April 20, 1974, Sono and the rest of the Black XI soccer stars stepped onto the field at Rand Stadium to play the White XI in a historic game that literally pitted the races against each other, turning soccer into a bizarre referendum on racism.

An overflow crowd estimated at more than 55,000 jammed into the tiny stadium--whites on one side, blacks on the other, with barbed wire in between--and armed security guards patrolled the field. The atmosphere fairly crackled.

But as much as that game angered the blacks, confused the whites, or patronized the other races, many believe it might have also hastened the end of apartheid.

"That game changed everything," said Sono, who went on to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League and later served as coach of the South African national team. "It was humiliating, it was frustrating, it was so many terrible emotions for me. As black men, we couldn't represent our country properly in international football, and this was no substitute. But it was a steppingstone that allowed change to happen."

Now, with South Africa battling Brazil, England, Germany and Morocco for the right to host the 2006 World Cup--a decision that will be announced Thursday in Zurich, Switzerland--it is remarkable how far soccer has come in so short a time. Twenty-six years after skin color determined lineups, those same players and coaches are the power brokers as South Africa lobbies to host the sport's crown jewel.

Clive Barker, a respected white coach, said soccer was always more than a game, especially in 1974.

"In those days, football was the only way to legally protest against apartheid," he said. "Football broke down barriers and brought changes that organizations like the ANC [African National Congress] could only talk about underground. In effect, we were telling the government to get rid of the color barriers. Soccer did that, not politics."

The black-white match was the final of a strange and twisted tournament called the Embassy Multi-National Series, the first official competition to include teams from each of South Africa's apartheid-era races: white, black, colored and Indian.

If a tournament drawn along racial lines seems dubious now, factor in the tension wrought by apartheid in the mid-1970s. Blacks were forcibly being herded by the millions into arid "homelands," with passbooks and strict curfews designed to keep them out of white neighborhoods. Coloreds and Indians were decidedly second-class citizens, and tottering colonial governments in neighboring Angola and Rhodesia and Mozambique had ratcheted white fear in South Africa up to frenzied levels.

*

If South Africa must choose between being poor and white or rich and multiracial, then it must rather choose to be white.

--Hendrik Verwoerd,

former South Africa prime minister

*

Sports, like every other aspect of apartheid-era life in South Africa, was deeply troubled. The country's turbulent soccer leagues were divided along color lines, and clubs were forbidden to sign players of different races.

In 1973, white fans were turned away by police when they tried to attend an exhibition match between a black all-star team and a touring British side in Soweto, while attempts at staging games between South Africa's top black and white clubs in neighboring countries like Botswana and Swaziland were quashed by FIFA, soccer's governing body.

Given that, why provide the races equal footing on the soccer field? Surely the tournament--conceived by Piet Koornhof, South Africa's minister of sport, and backed by old-guard sports officials and corporations--risked violence and chaos, especially if the White XI were to lose to the so-called inferior races. Were the whites that certain of victory?

Perhaps. But some believe the motivation was more devious than that. Reporter Sy Lerman covered the series for South Africa's leading paper, the Rand Daily Mail, and questions whether the white government and sports officials even cared if their team won.

"Soccer was perceived as the sport of the blacks back then, and I got the feeling that the white government actually wanted the blacks to win," Lerman said. "If the blacks beat the whites, it would deflect attention away from the real problems of apartheid. They could use soccer to pander to the blacks, whereas the whites losing to the blacks in soccer wasn't viewed as that important."

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