May the Boks win every match, except when they play the All Blacks


May the Boks win every match, except when they play the All Blacks

It's not that he hates South Africa. It's not even that he wants any of the national teams to lose. It may have to do with his brain’s resistance to patriotic zeal. That, and male-bonding, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


THE Springboks played a magnificent game to beat the All Blacks last weekend. On the back of that performance, and if there is no repeat of that infamous defeat at the hands, feet and hearts of the Japanese, the Springboks will probably win the 2023 World Cup.

I am just going to say it: I support the All Blacks. I have since 1970, the year I turned 12. Between 1970 and 1975, I supported all the visiting teams. Highlights of my adult life — silly, I know, but serious — were meeting (on different occasions) Gareth Edwards, Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke and Christian Cullen, and in a different (but related) context, being in the same room as Paolo Maldini and Roberto Baggio. There it is. I said it. Is there a more beautiful man than Maldini?

But seriously, none of this means I hate South Africa. Though with all the violence, the chain of crises — not many of which will go away any time soon — systemic collapses, rape, abuse of children, women and the frail, racial scapegoating, and the abject refusal to take responsibility (with nary a fragment of compunction), I sometimes wonder. It also does not mean I love New Zealand. I have never been to New Zealand (nor Australia and Japan, for that matter), so I can only imagine.

About the Springboks (and the Proteas), it started when it did but turned into something else about 30 years ago. I will explain the football (not “soccer”) loyalty to Italy, and cricket.

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During the 1980s, when the domestic Italian game was at its best — how long the memories of catenaccio linger — South Africa did not play international football. I chose Italy as “my team”. I had a deep relationship with Italian football. When I was about eight or nine we played football on the streets and on the old Queen's Park grounds in Fietas (see this Facebook page) where I first heard of “Juventus”. I was born and spent parts of my early childhood in Fietas, where I attended the Krausestraatse Kleurling Laerskool. I became a Juventus “player” or a saamloper or something (I don’t think it was actually a team), and quite by accident became a fan of the Torinese club. When I first went to Italy in the 1980s, I made a point of going to watch the Old Lady at the stadium that once went by the name of Stadio Benito Mussolini. Yes, that Benito Mussolini.

I have stayed with Italy as “my” national team since those dark days of the mid-1980s, and I have suffered and celebrated with them ever since. I will (quietly) support Italy even if they play against Bafana Bafana. As with the Springboks or Proteas, I never want Bafana Bafana to lose, but remain unmoved either way. It may have to do with my brain’s resistance to patriotic zeal — the brain does things before the mind makes decisions, I think. I also have an aversion to male bonding.

The male of our species has historically treated sport as its domain of absolute power, a place for fraternal bonding and flexing machismo. Recently, Luis Rubiales, head of the Spanish Football Federation, grabbed the Spanish forward Jenni Hermoso by the head and kissed her on the lips after Spain won the World Cup, showing how, in so many ways, men think they can do as they please in sport and society.

That sounds intellectual and ideological, but I have no problem or even the slightest hesitation in making those claims. It is part of the reason why I have, for most of the past two decades, followed and supported women’s sport; from being the academic adviser of the rugby team at the University of South Carolina, to the South Korean volleyball team, the Malaysian badminton team and Equatorial Guinea’s women’s football team.

It’s a treat and a thrill to be free of the zealotry that is so often part of patriotism and symbols of national pride. Just by the way, in my “research” on women’s sport in South America, I came across the most violent and egregious abuse of animals — for sport. The point is that, at least with the vaquejada, women can be as cruel and violent. Also, the moer-mekaar of mixed martial arts is horrifying.

Here’s a story from the past. Many years ago, my father stood in the doorway, surveying kids playing in the street and said to my mother: “Jirre Kulsoom, die kinders weet nie meer wat om te speel nie, nou speel hulle moer-mekaar.” (“Oh my goodness, Kulsoom, the kids no longer know what to play, now they're playing beat each other up.")

It’s in the blood

These things don’t run in the blood. But never mind that scientific truth. Cricket runs in my blood. My late mother was besotted with Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan. She knew. During the 1940s and 1950s, her brothers, cousins and other members of the extended family played for the old Transvaal Coloured/Malay cricket teams. My late uncles were legends of the game. I have played cricket twice in my life. I bowled once, and felt the pains the next day. Who knew that bowling was such an excruciating experience? As a young reporter and press photographer in the 1980s I photographed matches at the Wanderers. I remember names such as Clive Rice and Jimmy Cook. On Sundays, I would go to matches in Lenasia or Bosmont where Indian, coloured and Malay (men) played. That was also the time when South Africa did not play international cricket, so I chose to support either the West Indies or Sri Lanka. I stayed with Sri Lanka.

A historical point of significance. I spent most of the period between 1993 and 2010 between Europe and North America. This meant I missed a lot of the patriotism and the new fervour. (I have one or two fleeting memories of the 1997 British Lions tour to South Africa, and saw Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram opening the bowling at Newlands — that’s about it.) So, I don’t think I ever saw players such as Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock (I only knew that I did not like their politics) or Dale Steyn, who I believe was good. I caught up with all things rugby when an old friend, Charles Leonard, invited me to join him and a few others at a match at Ellis Park about a decade ago. Here is where things got strange.

For better or for worse, at the time we went to Ellis Park I could recall only Transvaal, Northern Transvaal and my beloved Western Province. I’m not sure what the result was. It was all a little confusing. I still don’t know who the Stormers are or whether there is still a WP. I don’t think I’m conservative, nor am I nostalgic. I have simply not kept up. It shows how much/little I know about these things. I cannot name more than two players in any South African rugby or cricket team — nor the All Blacks, for that matter. The thing about the Springboks cannot be dismissed easily.

As mentioned above, my dislike started during those impossible days of the early 1970s, it gained some depth in the 1980s, and from about 1993 I was simply too busy to pay attention. Among the abiding memories I retain is the voice of Gerhard Viviers, which we played over and again on vinyl records. I swear I can imitate him saying “tien tree van die stipple lyn” and “aan die paveljoen kant van die veld”. As for the West Indies, I remember seeing Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd on the big screen in the Lyric and Avalon cinemas in Fordsburg. Strange days.

Let me get back to rugby. I played rugby when I was a laaitie. I played in the pack, then at scrumhalf, but in a blur of mud, rain, snot and tears (really), all my dreams and aspirations were shattered by a winger who was not exactly Peter Whipp or JPR Williams. He showed me just why I could not and should not play rugby.

I carry with me, then, a lot of old baggage, memories and loyalties. I can say without contradiction that among my favourite sports people are people from South Africa (Lucas Radebe and Linda Buthelezi); Italy (Roberto Baggio, Mario Balotelli, Paolo Maldini); Sri Lanka (Lasith Malinga); New Zealand (Zinzan Brooke and Dan Carter); Argentina (Javier Zanetti — because of his politics); Brazil (Ronaldo and Marta); India (Sachin Tendulkar); Australia (Ricky Ponting); Switzerland (Roger Federer); Germany (Mesut Özil); the Netherlands (Vivianne Miedema); Japan (Mana Iwabuchi and Chiharu Shida); USA (Michael Jordan); Malaysia (Pearly Tan and Thinaah Muralitharan); South Korea (Lee Da-hyeon)… I could go on. The point is that I long ago abandoned national or patriotic affiliation. It also means that I don’t go up and down the emotional peaks and valleys of wins or losses — except, of course, when Arsenal lose to Tottenham Hotspur.

To understand the politics of my choices, here’s an example. For a long time I believed Wayne Gretzky was the greatest ice hockey player, ever. This was never in doubt, and still should not be. My loyalty and blind support for The Great One changed when he supported George W Bush’s war on Iraq and Afghanistan. I had ties to the Chicago Blackhawks for a long time, until I became aware that the use of native American names in sports teams was seriously offensive.

Where, then, do I stand with the Springboks and the 2023 World Cup? I usually support the underdogs, in most competitions, until they are no longer the underdogs. I hope the Springboks win every match in the competition, except when they play the All Blacks. Last weekend’s result was not very comforting.

♦ VWB ♦

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