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Destination: South Africa
Posted by Jayaditya Gupta on 07/06/2010


Locals are shut out of training

Deep in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, beyond the leafy Rondebosch area, is the Athlone Stadium. On Monday evening, as the Holland team practiced on its newly laid turf, the buzz in the ground and outside belied the sense of hurt felt by the local community.

Yes, Athlone has a new pitch, and yes, it has new stands as well, and probably a fresh lick of paint as part of a $50 million facelift to raise it to the standards of a World Cup practice venue.
But Athlone, its people feel, should have got much more – it should have got the matches, not the practice sessions.

The Athlone Stadium is home to Cape Town’s two top teams, Ajax and Santos but, more importantly, was the centre of the “protest” sports movement in the apartheid years. This was where SACOS – the South African Council of Sport – would stage its meetings, sporting and otherwise.

And this stadium, adjoining the townships of Gugulethu, Langa and Khayelitsha, is where Cape Town’s best footballers learned their trade. “Benni (McCarthy) played here, Quinton (Fortune) used to live a couple of blocks away,” said Basil Palanyandi, who grew up nearby and now coaches the community’s youngsters. “Steven Pienaar also played here. There’s history on this pitch, there’s a football history here you won’t find in Green Point.”

And therein lies the nib – FIFA wanted the World Cup stadium to be built in the more touristy area adjoining the Waterfront. There were angry protests from Cape Town’s footballing community, who wanted tradition to be maintained but reports suggest the city authorities were given something like an ultimatum – Green Point or nothing for Cape Town. And so Athlone got its upgrade and its promise of practice sessions, which turned out to be two sessions in the four weeks of the tournament – Portugal were here a fortnight ago.

The sense of hurt persists. As we drive into the stadium complex, before the Holland team arrive, we can see the locals lined up in the housing projects that surround it. I ask Ronny, standing across the barbed-wire fence, whether he’d been able to see the Portuguese players, and whether he expected to see the Dutch.

“The Portuguese came here, we were told they’d have a small session with us but that never happened. I don’t think we’ll get to see the Holland players.” Does he feel cheated? He shrugs his shoulders. “We don’t matter, man, we never really matter. I see the games on TV, that’s all I want.”

Up in the VIP box, which is where the media are seated for the practice session, I tell Basil about this conversation. “It’s a shame they don’t allow the kids in for this,” he said. “They could occupy just one stand, it would mean so much to them.”

His feeling for the kids is heartfelt – every year he’s been taking one team from Cape Town, officially representing Bishop Desmond Tutu, to the Dallas Cup, the annual youth tournament that sees teams compete from the world over.

That’s the conundrum thrown up by the Green Point Stadium – should it have been in Athlone, where the sport’s soul is, or in Green Point, where the tourists are? At the risk of offending everyone, and sounding like a tourist-journalist, I would say I can see FIFA’s point of view. The crowds at and near the Green Point Stadium have been amazing, the stadium itself becoming one of the many tourist spots in that area, and there are more restaurants and bars around it.

Athlone is surrounded by open fields, factories and housing projects. And a fair bit of barbed wire. I don’t quite see the tourists flocking there for an 8.30pm kick-off.

Basil, the pragmatist, has the answer. “The World Cup is almost over for Cape Town, what’s done is done. Now let them (the city authorities) keep Green Point for the rock concerts and bring the football back to Athlone.”

I think he’s right. Though I don’t think the football ever went away.


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