South Africa, Sports and the World Stage

BY Ray Suarez  June 11, 2010 at 12:29 PM EST

To fully appreciate why South Africa is so excited about hosting the World Cup, you have to remember how recently the sports-crazy country was isolated on the international scene. One of the few things South Africans of all colors agreed on in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s was their love of sports … black and white South Africans didn’t love the same sports, but never mind.

Ray SuarezDuring those decades the country’s relationships with the rest of the world were fraught with conflict and controversy. Many white South Africans yearned for international acceptance and understanding. The postwar world was deeply enmeshed in superpower conflict, and successive governments worked hard to remind the West that South Africa was a bulwark against Communism and Atheism.

At the very same time, black South Africans also wanted the world’s understanding, and were disappointed for years by the continued investment from international business, and continued support, and diplomatic recognition from the wealthy democracies for the whites-only government in Pretoria as it oppressed them.

As time passed, and the white minority government became more and more brutal in order to maintain its rule, open contact with South Africans became riskier on the world stage. International sports bodies now had more and more members from newly independent states in the developing world who wanted South Africa isolated. South Africa was pushed out of the Olympics in 1962, and missed every Olympiad from 1964 to 1992. International tournaments in games popular in the independent countries of the old British Empire, cricket and rugby, became occasions for boycotts, protests, and pressure on sponsors, as long as South Africa was included.

This all came to a head in 1976, when the New Zealand rugby team, the world famous All Blacks, went ahead with a tour of South Africa even after the Soweto Uprising brought international attention — and condemnation — to the conditions endured by blacks living under apartheid. Twenty-eight African teams boycotted the 1976 Olympics in Montreal after the International Olympic Committee refused to bar New Zealand from the Games.

The isolation continued through the 80s and into the 90s, until the end of apartheid. When democracy came to South Africa without civil war, a happy and relieved world lifted Nelson Mandela on its shoulders, and welcomed the country back into the family of nations.

It’s hard to exaggerate how deeply South Africans of all colors craved that attention, and acceptance. World famous musicians rushed in to perform. The national rugby team, still virtually all-white, won the World Cup in 1995. South Africa was back … in soccer, cricket, even cycling. And now the pinnacle…the championship tournament of the sport beloved of South Africa’s black majority, the sport played by the confined leaders of the African National Congress in prison on Robben Island, the game played by shoeless boys on dusty pitches from Cape Town to the border with Mozambique. It’s just huge, and for South Africans one of the most potent reminders yet that their country is no longer isolated from the world.

Add to that the strong sense among South Africans that their country is one of the few in the scores of nations on the continent that is a modern, world-class country. Hosting Africa’s first World Cup is a potent declaration of arrival inside and outside the country. There is widespread controversy in the country about the costs of staging the tournament. The rest of the world wondered whether South Africa could manage the construction of new stadiums, rail lines, and hotels. The world’s press, especially in Latin American and European soccer powers, speculated about the crime and violence plaguing South Africa, and the effect it would have on the World Cup.

There have been robberies. The law of averages says there’ll be more. (Do you really think there were no hotel rooms rifled, no pockets picked, in Paris and Berlin?)

Now the opening game is in the books. A jubilant crowd watched South Africa score the first goal of the 2010 World Cup, on the way to a 1-1 draw with the favored Mexican team. Win, lose, or draw, South Africa may have already made its point.