Tuesday May 18th, 2010

This story appeared in the April 12, 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Race is seldom a simple thing, especially in South Africa, where until 1994 the black majority suffered under the brutal policy of apartheid. But as the scene at a stadium in Johannesburg last June made plain, racial assumptions often reveal more about the observer than the observed. In South Africa's first game of the 2009 Confederations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this summer's World Cup, a roar went up from the Ellis Park crowd -- BOOOOOO! -- whenever the ball came to a particular South African defender. Foreign observers railed. "The only white player on the host team," noted Spain's El Pa�s, "was received with boos by his own fans, most of them black." Some South Africans drew the same conclusion. "Why do they always boo the poor guy?" asked a woman who was sitting near Matthew Booth's wife, Sonia, at the game.

"They thought it was a racist thing," Sonia said. "I just laughed. But part of me wanted to say, 'They're not booing him. He's my husband, and trust me, I know!'" The truth, as Booth himself points out, is "the complete opposite." South Africa's fans, like American fans of Bruce Springsteen, were paying him the ultimate compliment: chanting his name.

On the eve of the 2010 World Cup, perhaps no player is better positioned to unite all South Africans behind the home team than Booth, who owes his massive popularity to a variety of factors. Maybe it's the way he helped shut down opposing forwards during South Africa's better-than-expected showing at the Confederations Cup. Maybe it's his outspoken support for improved soccer facilities and education in the townships, or his call for an end to the perception of soccer as a "black" sport in South Africa and rugby and cricket as "white" sports. Or maybe it's his marriage to Sonia, a former model, Miss South Africa finalist and self-described "township girl" from Soweto, one of the few high-profile interracial unions in a country still striving to achieve Nelson Mandela's vision of the Rainbow Nation.

You can't spend time in Johannesburg without seeing Booth's image in ads for LG, Vodacom or (with his wife, two sons and mother-in-law) the dietary supplement Spirulina. When FIFA needed a South African player to share the stage with Charlize Theron, David Beckham and Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the World Cup draw in December, it chose Booth. At shopping malls, black soccer fans will stop a shaved-headed white guy to take his picture with cellphone cameras ("Good luck, Mr. Booth!"), even if he turns out not to be the man himself.

It's enough to make you wonder: In a nation where racial divisions remain deep, how did a white player who grew up attending all-white schools become a hero in the black townships?

Chalk and cheese. It's how South Africans describe two things that are completely different-- and how the Booths describe their unlikely union. Sonia Bonneventia Pule grew up in Pimville, a neighborhood of Soweto, the country's largest township. Her father, Themba, died when Sonia was a month old, and she was raised in a two-bedroom house with 16 other family members. "You make it work," says Sonia, 31. "That was my life for 18 years." She witnessed some of the most violent clashes between Sowetans and government security forces. At the same time, she began appearing in beauty pageants, earning prizes for her family: a toaster, a water kettle, a television.

Booth, 33, was born nearly 800 miles away in Fish Hoek, a white, middle-class suburb of Cape Town known for its prohibition of alcohol and for its elderly population. Soccer was not an option at his all-white schools. "I played rugby, cricket, tennis," he says. "Soccer wasn't offered, even though it was the No. 1 sport in South Africa and still is. To this day a lot of the formerly all-white schools don't offer soccer." But Booth's father, Paul, was an administrator at Fish Hoek AFC, an amateur soccer club, where Matthew got his start in the sport. "It was a cultural and racial melting pot," he says. "I was assimilated from a young age, which I'm very grateful for."

Matthew began playing professionally for Cape Town Spurs in 1994 and soon emerged as one of the country's most promising players, earning a call-up to South Africa's national team in 1999 and captaining the country's Olympic squad in 2000. That year soccer also brought Matthew and Sonia together. As a 23-year-old defender for the club Mamelodi Sundowns, Booth joined a teammate who was picking up his daughter after a road trip. One of the babysitters was a tall, stunning young woman who was just starting a modeling career. In time Matthew and Sonia would go out in the same groups after games. Eventually he gathered up the courage to ask her out. "I realized he's not your average pompous soccer player," Sonia recalls. "He's actually cool." But different. While Matthew could be perfectly happy staying at home and reading, she was the consummate social animal, always chattering, always out and about. Chalk and cheese.

For years the two had a long-distance relationship. Sonia left for New York City in 2000, walking the Fashion Week runway as part of the Face of Africa campaign. Matthew, after suffering a devastating right-knee injury two weeks before the 2002 World Cup, moved to Russia, beginning a six-year odyssey that took him to teams in Rostov and Samara. Sonia visited him often but lived in South Africa, where she was earning a business degree. Their first son, Nathan Katlego, was born in 2004. Two years later they were married, and in 2007 Sonia joined Matthew full-time in Samara. (Their second son, Noah Neo, arrived in 2008.)

Booth had success in Russia, but as far as the South African national team was concerned, he might as well have been in Siberia. Following the 2002 injury, a series of coaches ignored him until he finally earned a recall in late 2008. A mountainous presence on the back line, the 6-foot-6 Booth has since been solid for Bafana Bafana (Zulu for "the Boys"), setting himself up for his own Face of Africa campaign this June, in the first World Cup on African soil. "This has come toward the end of my career," says Booth, who returned to South Africa with his family to rejoin Sundowns last year. "If I can be part of it, I can die happy."

In the swank northern suburbs of Johannesburg not more than 200 feet separates a giant statue of Mandela from the office of the man responsible for organizing World Cup 2010. Danny Jordaan, the CEO of the World Cup organizing committee, fought for years to end apartheid and then served in parliament after Mandela was elected president in 1994. He knows as well as anyone that this World Cup is more than a sporting event. "You're talking about the transformation of a country and a society," Jordaan says. "Our past has been a past of apartheid, a past of separation of people based on discrimination. This project can actually bind the nation."

It is a mammoth undertaking. South Africa has spent more than $6 billion on stadiums, roads, airports and other projects. But there is one crucial element that the organizers can't control: the performance of the national team. No World Cup host has failed to survive the group stage, and to do so Bafana Bafana must finish in the top two of a tough group that includes highly regarded Mexico and a pair of former World Cup champions, France and Uruguay.

Nor does it help that South Africa has plunged to No. 88 in the most recent FIFA world rankings, from No. 16 in 1996. "Obviously we're the underdogs," says Booth. "The main thing for us is to regain our form from the Confederations Cup [in which South Africa lost by one-goal margins to Brazil and Spain]. If we can play the way we did then, we stand a chance to get out."

The bigger question is why South African soccer has fallen so far. Bafana Bafana failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup after reaching the previous two, and since winning the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations it has performed progressively worse in each of the continental championships, failing even to qualify for the most recent 16-team tournament, in January. "It's embarrassing," Booth says. "Countries may go through a weak two or three years, but after that you should regenerate. I think we have to get our fingers out and start putting a plan in place to stop the rut."

To that end, last year he and Sonia founded the Booth Education and Sports Trust, which provides donations for disadvantaged communities to support soccer (building artificial-turf fields is a primary goal) and reading (by organizing book clubs and spelling bees). When his playing career is over, Booth says, he'd like to go into coaching and youth development, to help soccer catch up organizationally to rugby and cricket.

There's still reason for optimism, he adds. The World Cup has been drawing more fans and potential sponsors to the sport in South Africa. "A lot more white and mixed-race people will come up to me and say, 'We're behind you for the World Cup,'" Booth says. "We've cast a wider net." And while Booth's criticism of the status quo hasn't always endeared him to the country's soccer administrators, his steady play and leadership have made him beloved in the black community. On most Monday nights Matthew and Sonia leave their gated neighborhood north of Johannesburg to dine in nearby Alexandra, the country's oldest township. Matthew barely has time to tuck into a plate of tripe before being surrounded by fans. "He gets mobbed," Sonia says.

Race is seldom a simple thing, especially in South Africa. But sometimes it isn't so complicated. In January, Matthew, Sonia, Nathan and Noah gathered in Soweto to host a giant celebration for her mother, Helga. The couple had bought Helga a new house, and the days of 17 family members sharing a two-bedroom place seemed long ago. "In the townships," Sonia said, "you don't send out an invitation to your neighbors or the community. They invite themselves, so there will be at least 200 gate-crashers."

The crowd spilled into the street. Everyone drank Helga's homemade ginger beer and feasted on an enormous spread of food, from pap to chicken feet, from boerewors to chakalaka. A sheep was slaughtered in a traditional ceremony to commemorate the housewarming. Matthew and Sonia watched the scene with pride. Afterward, as the party raged and the music blared, two or three well-served Sowetans couldn't help themselves, serenading their host with a song from the stadiums.

"BOOOOOO!"

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