The boy’s house was on a dusty side street off Boom Street, one of Pretoria’s main east-west thoroughfares, which runs about two miles east of the National Zoological Garden. Third Street in Asiatic Bazaar, Marabastad: half a block with bike shops, music, Florsheim shoes, fancy hats, corner cafes and a handful of houses. A few blocks away was the town’s fruit and vegetable market and beyond that the sandy soccer field where Sundowns FC was born. Shades of peppers and mixed spices on a dry day, churned up brown after rain, proved to be a dream field for Fish Kekana and the two doctors Motsiri Itsweng and Bonnie Sebotsane, who founded what is now Mamelodi Sundowns.
The boy’s father would take him for walks with his boxer dog, sometimes stopping to watch late afternoon casual football being played on this unforgiving surface. On the weekends, the crowds thronged, roared, and reveled in the ultimate folk game (more correctly back then: man’s game). That was a time when the fans and the players lived more or less in the same world and earned about the same salary. (Liverpool’s great sides of the 1960s didn’t take much more home with them than the workers who came to watch them play.)
- The human cost of the World Cup in Qatar
This is now: a time when petrostates with grueling human rights records are trying to wash away their crimes and polish their image by buying football clubs and giving them money beyond the limits set by their own sporting authorities – and get away with it. Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar Sports Investments), Manchester City (Abu Dhabi United Group, property later coyly renamed City Football Group Limited) and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund) are petrodollars, sovereign wealth funds and ultimately also victimized nation states with limitless wealth. That means success can and is bought – and in the case of the first two, it was. Newcastle were only taken over this season but expect Jamal Khashoggi’s killers to shower the place with money (like they try to do with golf).
However, there is a measure of karmic justice in club football’s greatest accolade, the UEFA Champions League, which both Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City consistently elude. In this respect, they are the football equivalent of cricket’s flat-track bullies: they beat most opponents in their domestic leagues but fail year after year when facing the elite in the crucial stages of the league. Inevitably, one of the blood money trios will win, possibly Pep Guardiola’s messianic City squad. But the game is already over, and all claims of it being “the beautiful game” are over as well.
money buys everything
The curtain fell on the day Manchester City announced the acquisition of their new, super, much-improved Real Nine, Erling Haaland, the embodiment of a Viking, albeit without the axe. Guardiola has been snubbed for not having a traditional centre-forward and has just bought one because that will bring you limitless cash from endless pockets. There might have been a pact: if I (Guardiola) win the Champions League with my set of oh-so-clever false nines, I win, not real nines; If not, I’ll buy a real nine. A win-win situation. How can Guardiola ever lose? It’s entirely reasonable to rank Claudio Ranieri’s Premier League win with Leicester City above any Guardiola title, as Ranieri had a team of Triers and Believers and just two stars, N’Golo Kanté and Jamie Vardy, at his disposal.
What Guardiola has done with Haaland is add an orc of immense proportions to the army of Mordor. Like the all-seeing, all-conquering Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Guardiola has now assembled the most invincible and massive squad team club in football club history. Why would anyone try to face down in his Mordor-esque way? Every other team is just a bunch of deluded and hopeful humans and hobbits pitted against the very evil of unfettered, money-bought power.
Liverpool, a club forever scarred by the Hillsborough tragedy, will look to keep up the pace. It has a Gandalf-like figure in the irrepressible Jurgen Klopp, who has often said that repeated setbacks in his life and career have only made him more determined. But Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings belongs to the literary genre of fantasy and Guardiola and City live happily together in a world where it is commonplace to invade the neighbors and kill thousands of civilians; there is nothing to see here.
- The dark side of the power of sport
Football isn’t the pretty game the boy saw on the dusty red of a bone-hard Marabastad pitch. The people around him weren’t the middle-class fans and spectators that make up a huge part of the football crowd in the UK today. They weren’t the overpaid pundits in easy chairs in television studios around the world. They weren’t the spoiled guests in stadium hospitality suites and corporate boxes for whom a day in football is all about reward, power, excess and display. They weren’t the players to make more in a week than most South Africans will make in a lifetime.
Instead, they were “normal” people, some employed, many not. She and the players on the field were equals in life, and for the duration of the game could put all cares and worries aside and join in the beauty of football, like one of the greatest film directors, the late Pier Paolo Pasolini, “the final sacred ritual.” our time”.
Alas, it isn’t anymore and the boy who used to be says goodbye with sadness and longing. It’s the end of the game. Adieu.