Why did the fans stay away, even for Madiba?
Johannesburg – The South African media woke its nation on Monday to headlines that captured the triumphant spirit of SuperSport United in their giant-killing act against Manchester City but no one appeared ready to talk about why people stayed away from a game that was supposed to honour Nelson Mandela.
SuperSport United's stunning 2-0 win over Manchester City deserved the headlines given that this was a classic case of David bringing down Goliath but something important was missing.
Arriving in Pretoria on Sunday morning, you were confronted with giant posters along the streets that reminded you of the special football match that was set for Loftus Versveld that after afternoon in honour of Madiba.
That the anti-apartheid hero was also in the city, at a hospital close to the stadium that has been his home since he slipped into an acute condition after a pneumonia attack, made it all special, if not appealing, that a football festival should be held in his honour.
Mandela’s most iconic sporting moment might not have come from a football pitch – by his own revelation he loved boxing when he was a young man and 18 years ago he strode into sporting folklore when he arrived at Ellis Park, in a Springbok jersey, for the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.
A year later, he produced a carbon copy of that image, wearing Neil Tovey’s jersey as the Bafana Bafana captain lifted the ’96 Nations Cup on home soil, which was more than Madiba would have wanted after a row with Sani Abacha kept the then champions, Nigeria, away from defending their crown.
The man tasked with making the public announcements kept reminding everyone who was at Loftus that they should spare a moment for Madiba, that the anti-apartheid hero was lying in a hospital close by and that this special match was being held in his honour.
Manchester City midfielder, Yaya Toure, one of the biggest names in world football, also bought into the Madiba magic, on the eve of the match, when he told the South African media that it would be an honour for him to play a football game in honour of the former South African president.
But come match day on Sunday, something just didn’t look right at Loftus.
In surprising scorching mid-winter sunshine, on a perfect day for such a football match, the thousands of fans that had been expected to turn this into a festival somehow, against all expectations, decided to stay away.
When Loftus is full, for a rugby game featuring its beloved Blue Bulls, there will be 51 762 fans inside the stadium.
On Sunday, there was hardly a quarter of that number and the huge gaps, inside the stadium, made it such an embarrassing show for the organisers given the quality of the visiting team, and its megastars, and the name of the man who was being honoured for the occasion.
Manchester City, who are used to playing matches before more than 40 000 fans at their home ground, must have been surprised by the apparent lack of interest, in this game against SuperSport United, when they emerged for their warm-up session.
Did the ticket prices of R150, R250 and R350 turn off the fans who are used to pay far less, for the league matches that are played in this country?
Granted, SuperSport United do not have a large support base but the mere fact that Manchester City were in town and that this was an occasion for Mandela should have driven ticket sales at a time when the name of the ailing icon is in the hearts of millions of South Africans.
So why was Loftus closer to emptiness than fullness on Sunday?
“It’s a problem here because for most of the football supporters, football is about Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates and, to some extent, Bafana,” our taxi driver, Rio Shongwe told us.
“We also expected some big business when they started talking about this match and that Yaya Toure will be coming but we were surprised that few people decided to come and watch.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s the ticket price but for Madiba, I expected to see more people. There will be more people in Durban when they play Amazulu because I understand the ticket prices are cheaper there and the game is going to be held on the day Madiba turns 95.”
On the Gautrain, the issue of the poor crowd at the big match was quite topical.
“It's still off-season folks, just like the players, the fans have also taken a break to recharge their batteries and they will be back soon,” said one man.
It appeared there were more fans wearing the Manchester United replica jerseys at Loftus than those who were wearing the sky blue of City and one held a poster that read, provokingly “Manchester Is Red.”
There was no hiding from the fact that this crowd was an embarrassment for the organisers and questions raged on the internet as to why so few people had decided to turn up at Loftus.
“What’s it with the poor crowd,” screamed the soccer-blogger website. “The stadium sets over 50 000 but it wasn’t full by any stretch of imagination.”
The last match SuperSport United had played, in the Nedbank Cup final against Kaizer Chiefs, at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, 50 000 fans had turned up but, at Loftus on Sunday, for what was a bigger political cause and played against a world-class team, only a fifth of that number passed the gates.
The new PSL chief executive, Brand de Villiers, has already targeted arresting falling attendance figures as one of his immediate priorities.
“First of all we need to understand why fans are not attending. Once we have an understanding from all stakeholders, including the white fans, then we shall be in a position to make plans to address their concerns,” said De Villiers.
“Generally, poor attendance is a problem across all sporting codes but we need to sort it out because it is not good for television.”
Manchester City's official Twitter account chose just to congratulate the winning team.
“Well done to SuperSport on the win, some solid game time for the 23 Manchester City FC players involved today,” the club tweeted.
Those players included new signing Fernandinho, who made his debut for the Citizens in that game, while Yaya Toure limped off, after coming in as a substitute, with seven minutes remaining.