June 27, 2010

Sorry cricket, it's the football World Cup

Two cricket stadiums in South Africa have been opened up for football fans, and hardly a soul cares about Graeme Smith and Co over in the West Indies

Three weeks ago, the Wanderers Stadium, usually left to rest at this time of year, was being invaded. The queue to get in at 3pm on a Tuesday snaked at least 100 metres up Corlett Drive, and an hour and a half later more than 33,000 people were crammed into the Bullring - which this time was not a ring, as it had semi-circular sections marked off on either end to form a rectangle. The hallowed ground that is the square was a blur and instead of 11 players in white sedately strolling about, two blustering storms of men in yellow and red marched onto the pitch.

One of those men only stepped onto the field after an hour of play. The noise that greeted him was louder than the cheers that reverberated around Johannesburg when Makhaya Ntini stole that sneaky single during the 438 game four years ago. That man was Cristiano Ronaldo, and his Portuguese team beat Mozambique 3-0 in a friendly match that was played at the home of South African cricket on the 8th of June. The Wanderers probably made more money and saw more people pass through its gates on that day than it does in an entire season of domestic cricket.

"You can't even begin to compare the amount of support that football receives to what cricket gets," said Dave Emslie, chief executive officer of Eastern Province Cricket. "We have to be realistic about the amount of people we can get to a cricket game versus the people interested in attending the football World Cup."

Since cricket authorities in the country know they will struggle to attract the numbers football does, they've jumped on the soccer bandwagon and found a way to get involved in the World Cup. Both St George's Park in Port Elizabeth and SuperSport Park in Centurion are official FIFA Fan Fests, which means they open their doors to football fans who want to watch the matches on a big screen in a communal environment.

It also means they are being used outside of their usual season, and that they will have two months instead of four to recover in time for the Champions League Twenty20, which starts on the 10th of September. It's still ample time, but with a bitter winter cold seeing the grass turn dry and brown in Centurion and rain make a mud bath out of St George's, there has been some concern over the two venues.

Neither of their CEOs shares the anxiety. Emslie acknowledged that the rain has not been kind to his stadium but said he believes they have "gone through the worst of it". He also said the weather may have had an impact on crowd flow, with St George's no longer experiencing "massive crowds", especially now that South Africa are out of the World Cup. By contrast, Elise Lombard, CEO of the Titans said the crowds have been flooding Centurion. "For the South Africa games, we had 30,000 people for the opening, 23,000 for the second match, and about 15,000 for the third game."

Centurion is on the Highveld, where winter is harsher on grass, and Lombard said they are being careful to ensure that there is no damage. "The square is covered and while the grass has a lot of feet trampling it, it is actually lying dormant. It has gone brown but it usually looks like this anyway because of the frost that covers the grass in winter. We will make sure it is clarified, fed and nurtured after the football World Cup, which will keep us on track to be ready for the Champions League. We would never have offered our stadium as a Fan Fest without the consultation of our curator, who assured us that we would be able to manage."

Lombard said SuperSport Park is hoping to build its own profile after it was selected as an official Fan Fest. "FIFA was to decide between us and the Union Building [the main administrative offices of the South African government, which has large gardens] and we passed all the tests. We have the infrastructure to cope with large crowds on a daily basis, which the Union Building may not have had. I think being at a stadium is more than just about the game you are watching but about the experience as a whole. SuperSport Park wants to make sure that from the time people park their cars when they come in, to the time they leave, the amenities are up to standard and able to cope with any size crowd.

CSA staff learnt the Diski dance, the soccer sequence that puts together moves like heading and chesting a ball culminating in scoring a goal, and Graeme Smith has even showed off his moves for a television advert

"The passion of the supporters has been so tangible, particularly when South Africa are playing." So does she feel a little envious that cricket doesn't often yield the same results and generate the same level of income for the stadium from the public? "Depending on which tour we get given, cricket doesn't always pay for itself. I don't think cricket is doing anything wrong, but football are rugby are the two dominant sports in the country."

That said, the cricket team are probably pleased that they are not playing a series at home, like their rugby counterparts, as they may have fallen even further under the radar than they are now. The Springboks have played three Test matches in South Africa, one against France and two against Italy, since the football World Cup started, and while there were plenty of spectators at the games, the matches' profile outside of that was wanting. Similarly the Proteas are on the verge of whitewashing the West Indies, and harsh as it may seem, few sports-loving South Africans know or even care.

Cricket South Africa has been active in reminding fans that the team has chalked up many achievements on their current tour, such as Mark Boucher becoming the first wicketkeeper to 500 dismissals. The board has also been mindful of the public's distraction with football and have been one of the forerunners in showing their support for Bafana Bafana. CSA staff learnt the Diski dance, the soccer sequence that puts together moves like heading and chesting a ball culminating in scoring a goal, and Graeme Smith has even showed off his moves for a television advert.

It's a pity that Smith and his men have spent most of the football World Cup in the Caribbean, because they seem genuinely interested in the tournament. They've offered their support, and empathy, to Bafana Bafana, and made time to watch the team's matches. Smith posted pictures of his team gathering around a big screen at their hotel to watch South Africa play France. AB de Villiers tweeted after the match, which saw South Africa exit the tournament despite beating France: "Great fighting spirit Bafana!!! Awesome effort. Proud of you guys!!!" The Proteas are set to return on the third of July, in time to catch the two semi-finals and the final.

Firdose Moonda is a freelance writer based in Johannesburg