“We are making history again, Jeff!” Vukani exclaimed as we walked amongst a streaming mass of fantatical Orlando Pirates supporters on our way to the spanking new Moses Mabhida stadium.
I was inclined to agree.
Playing, coaching and watching soccer had been a major component of the year Vukani and I had participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program in South Africa during the 1995-1996 school year.
One of my most memorable experiences came early in the year, when Tsepo, one of Vukani’s best friends, drove me to Johannesburg for the finals of the Four Nations Cup that pitted South Africa and Tunisia.
When Ntuthuko, another friend, realized that the number of tickets was one short of the number needed for all of us go to go, he broke the news to me with a seriousness that I could only assume he had learned during the portion of his medical training that deals with informing people they have a little time to live.
“You see, Jeff,” he said. “The problem is that we don’t have enough tickets. How would you feel about staying here while we watched the game?”
“Not after I came all the way from Durban!” I responded.
“OK, Jeff,” Ntuthuko said. “Don’t worry. We will organize.”
He was good to his word and returned several hours later not only with the promised ticket, but one that was in the Vodacom box that meant we had access to ample supplies of food and drink.
I learned later that Tsepo, he and some of the other guys that had planned to drug my Coke if their quest had been unsuccessful. I would sleep through the game, at which point they would return and upbraid me for being so sleepy.
Fortunately, that was not necessary and we all saw a dramatic, 2-0 victory by Bafana, Bafana, the Zulu name for the beloved national team.
Vukani drew on a college connection to get us seats in the Presidential Suite. This was handy both because of the tasty food and free flowing beer, but also because it was raining quite hard and we were able to stay dry.
Vukani had further marked the significance of the occasion by giving me his son’s black winter hat with the Pirates logo. (I had done my part by donning the navy blue blazer I wore when Dunreith and I got married for the second time at Look Park.).
The hat attracted plenty of attention.
I had trouble walking more than 25 yards without some crazed Pirates fan flashing in front of me, arms crossed in an X at the wrist to resemble bones and yelling, “Amabakhabakha,” the Zulu name for the team, and pointing to my hat.
Ntuthuko was supposed to join us, but had to tend to being the second in command for the beginning of his niece’s lobola, or bride negotiation, process.
In the initial meeting, members of the groom’s party comes to the bride’s house to state their intentions and start to build a relationship with the families that will merge through he marriage.
Because of Ntuthuko’s absence, Vukani actually had to sell two surplus tickets.
Rather than scalp them for a profit, he sold them at face value to a man who looked as if the 100 Rands, the equivalent of about $12, was an awful lot, but there was no way he was not going to take his woman to that game.
Pre-game festivities consisted of downing a couple of beers with Owen, an energetic events planner for whom Vukani had been the main negotiator during his lobola process several years before.
We headed up to the stands, got the guards to open up the gates and entered the box.
It was perfect.
Rather than being enclosed and distant from the other fans, the box was just a hop away from the passageway where the fans walked toward their seats. (This created some problems as a series of non-box fans tried to join the section.)
Moses Mabhida is an open dome that holds about 50,000 people, each of whom has at least a decent view of the field, and has an arch that looms over it. The bright lights illuminated the perfectly manicured grass, onto which a steady stream of rain fell.
I would guess that about 100 of us where white, another illustration of the apartheid government’s comprehensive reach. In that era, rugby and cricket were white sports. Soccer was black.
The stadium was part of South Africa’s effort to host a “carbon neutral” world cup. In this case, it meant tearing down the existing stadium and rebuilding it with the same materials.
In an unfortunate twist that illustrated the apartheid era’s more subtle yet enduring legacy in the country, the soccer authorities apparently did not communicate much with the rugby officials who run Kings Park Stadium, which is literally adjacent to it, about the field dimensions.
As a result, rugby games are rarely played there.
But all of that was far removed from our minds when the game began.
It was a sloppy affair, but one in which the Pirates struck first, just minutes into the game.
The goal set off a frenzy of celebration from the crowd, which, although both teams were technically playing away games, was filled with 90, if not 95, percent Pirates’ supporters.
Vukani was right in there with them, dancing, pumping his fist in the air and yelling with glee.
Even though the Pirates had a golden chance to put the game away just minutes later, they failed to convert, and the score held at halftime.
Vukani and I agreed that this meant that the opposing Wits squad was dangerous.
Twenty minutes into the second half, they struck, tieing the score at 1-1.
The potential tie forced Pirates to dig deep within themselves. They responded, scoring a second goal on a left-footed blast, followed by a lovely clinching goal in which they moved the ball down the left flank before placing it by the frustrated goal keeper.
Each successive score set off ever more exuberant and joyful celebrations which continued long after the game ended and dozens of fans stormed the field before being tackled by the security guards who often got in a few swift quick kicks to the miscreants.
Vukani couldn’t have been happier.
The game was an important one, as Pirates were seeking to become the first club to hold all five major titles in one season. Last year they won the treble, a first in local football since the formation of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
We asked someone to take a picture of us.
The image showed us arm in arm, cheering and holding our beers.
It reminded me of one we took when we first met 16 years ago in Washington, DC, near a monument for South African veterans. There, we also stood arm-in-arm before setting off for our respective adventures.
More than a decade and a half later, that moment of connection was captured again, this time on Vukani’s soil, over our shared passion for sport. Now middle-aged fathers and husbands, we were ever so grateful to be together, to share the experience and, indeed, to again make history.