By Jonathan Wilson
January 21, 2013
Siphiwe Tshabalala and South Africa play Angola on Wednesday after drawing Cape Verde 0-0.
Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

On June 24, 1995, South Africa won the rugby World Cup, a triumph detailed by the film Invictus. That was a remarkable triumph, and there is no decrying the symbolism of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springboks shirt, delivering the Webb Ellis Cup to Francois Pienaar, black president and white captain united in achievement. This was the glorious moment at which the dream of the rainbow nation seemed achievable.

But rugby was -- and remains -- predominantly a white sport. Although black fans did rally behind the rugby side, the team that won the final featured 14 white players and just one outlier, Chester Williams. Far less well-known on a global stage, but arguably more significant, was what happened seven months later.

On Feb. 3, 1996, Mandela again donned a national team shirt and again handed over a trophy to a white captain of South Africa. This time it was the football team, and, while it was a continental title rather than a world title that South Africa won, it arguably had a greater impact. This, after all, was in the majority sport, and the team was truly diverse.

"What happened in '95 was fantastic for the country, but us winning in '96 was the coming together," said Eric Tinkler, a midfielder on the 1996 African Cup of Nations winners.

"We feel we are, by far, the national sport, in terms of numbers and support base," said Neil Tovey, the captain of that team. "In terms of what we achieved, that moment was important in the history of the country. It was two years after we became a multiracial country, and we knew we had a role to play in uniting the country, that sporting achievement could do that. As a young democratic country [the football team] was far more representative [than the rugby team]. That is what proves that it is the national sport. You can add up all the numbers of participants and fans of the other sports put together, and they still wouldn't match football."

The way football had developed made it paradoxically both a bellwether of change yet more isolated than rugby.

"Football was in complete isolation," Tinkler said. "The Springboks were still known across the world. You still had tours to South Africa -- the Barbarians coming out here -- so they were still famous. But nobody knew the talent we possessed in South Africa in football."

And football had been mixed since 1978 when the multiracial league was formed -- even if players from the same team were forced to use separate hotels. The fan base was overwhelmingly black, but what happened in 1996 began to change that, just as 1995 had brought black support to rugby.

"It brought whites to the game of football," Tovey said. "Otherwise they didn't know anything about the game. They took an interest in the game. We had a lot of white players, talented players, in the junior ranks. There were no problems with color in the leagues. There was no problem like there was in rugby, where they had trouble getting black players into their environment."

As with all utopian dreams, the ideal of the rainbow nation has foundered. More surprisingly, South Africa, despite all its resources, has not gone on to dominate football on the continent as it seemed it would.

"I think people thought after '96 it would just be a conveyor belt, that they didn't have to do much about it, but now they realize," Tovey said. "We have all the talent in the world until the age of 12, but at the next stage we lose track, and that is purely because of professionalism in some of the setups. But if we put high performance [coaches and players] into each province and each age group, we could still do it."

Both he and Tinkler speak with some frustration of how the platform they built has not been developed. South Africa reached the African final again in 1998, losing to Egypt, since when there has been a steady decline, culminating in a failure to qualify for the last two tournaments.

"We should have been at least in the semis, the knockout stages," Tovey said. "We had set a platform for that natural triumph with the tournament. We had the infrastructure. The PSL, the [Premer Soccer] league, gives the chance for great achievement. Financially and administratively, it is one of the top 10 in the world. They have done a wonderful job but that is only an arm of SAFA [South African Football Association]."

South Africa might not have even qualified for this tournament had it not done so automatically as hosts, having replaced Libya because of the conflict there. If there is no other legacy of the World Cup, at least the facilities left over mean South Africa can host a tournament with little preparation time. The problem is creating a spectacle to grace those facilities.

"Football has evolved," Tinkler said. "When we grew up, a lot of the kids played on the streets. Lifestyle has changed, and you can't do that any more, so a lot of things we did naturally on the street need to be coached at an academy. It's having the people knowledgeable to do those things. That has not happened. We said at a SAFA symposium that there are 385 players to one qualified coach. In Spain and Germany it is 16 and 18 to one. There is still a lack of leaders here and that is something that shows."

"Facilities are not our problem," said Tovey, "and they never were: Great hotels, great infrastructure, all of it. That is why we should not be where we are, because of what we have got in this country. We should be far ahead of the rest of Africa and much of the world."

That South Africa is not far ahead was painfully apparent in an abject 0-0 draw against Cape Verde in the opening game of the Cup of Nations on Saturday. In the warm-up games, South Africa had looked tidy through midfield but short of attacking punch; on Saturday it just looked hopeless, particularly in the first half, barely able to string three passes together. The coach, Gordon Igesund, blamed nerves, while the atmosphere quickly descended into something familiar form England games: expectant yet cynical.

South Africa fans remember 1996 and see no reason their team can't reach those heights again, but repeated failure has made them disinclined to be forgiving, unable quite to believe things will work themselves out. A lack of coaches may be the major practical problem, but there is also the psychological aspect of yearning for past glories.

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