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South Africa’s World Cup: A local player cheers as his homeland prepares to host a historic sports event

When South Africa hosts one of the world’s biggest sporting events, it also will test its ability to manage such a massive undertaking.

Two-Boys Gumede
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Two-Boys Gumede, of the Twin Cities’ new professional soccer team, the NSC Minnesota Stars, is eagerly waiting to see how his homeland will handle next month’s World Cup events.

Two-Boys Gumede owns a new red, green, blue, black and gold South African flag that he’s ready to place in his Minneapolis apartment window.

A native of Tongaat, a town outside of Durban, South Africa, he was born seven years before the fall of apartheid and was barely 9 years old when Nelson Mandela was elected president in that nation’s first democratic election. He was born into an era when South African teams were barred from international competition because of its system of legal, racial segregation controlled by the country’s white minority.

Now, Gumede, a midfielder for the Twin Cities’ new professional soccer team, the NSC Minnesota Stars, is readying himself for the FIFA World Cup, which is set to open in his native country in 17 days 9,000 miles from Blaine.

Gumede — pronounced Goo-meh-day — knows it. When South Africa’s national team — known to people there as “Bafana Bafana” — takes on Mexico on June 11 in Johannesburg, this will be more than a sporting event.

“We are making history,” Gumede said the other day after a Stars practice in Blaine. “Just because we’re in Africa, doesn’t mean we’re not capable of keeping up with the rest of the world.”

This is a struggling nation’s coming-out party and a continent’s chance to prove it can stage a global event safely and competently. Gumede will watch closely.

Two-Boys’ story
Education and soccer brought him to the United States nine years ago and to Minnesota this spring. Circumstance brought him his name.

His mother, Thandi Gumede, already had one son when she was pregnant again in 1985. She longed for a daughter. Alas, when her second child arrived, she told friends and neighbors, “I have two boys now.” And the wonderful name stuck.

Twelve years later, his mother allowed him to leave Tongaat and attend The School of Excellence in Johannesburg, a select sports academy for naturally gifted football players — soccer, to us in America.

As part of that elite program, in 2001, he came to Kentucky as a 15-year-old South African on a high-level soccer exchange trip and wound up staying to finish high school and, then, attend and star at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he was named Conference USA’s player of the year as a senior.

A funny thing happened to him on his way to that senior season. After his sophomore season, he returned to South Africa to visit his mother and grandmother. But, after a month back near Durban, the U.S. government wouldn’t allow Gumede to return for nine months. He missed his junior season. He pondered turning professional in South Africa, home to such marvelously named clubs as the Kaiser Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Durban Golden Arrows.

Finally, the State Department allowed him back to Birmingham to finish his college career and his education. Now, Gumede is hoping to display his skills for the NSC Stars en route to a chance in Major League Soccer here in the United States; the Stars have replaced the Minnesota Thunder minor league team, which went out of business after last season.

“I’m the most patient guy you’ll ever meet,” Gumede said.

The Johannesberg airport readies for World Cup travelers.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
The Johannesberg airport readies for World Cup travelers.

When FIFA — the international football federation — selected South Africa in 2004, it was both a political act and a business decision. FIFA is to soccer what the NFL is to American football … only bigger and more powerful because of its global reach. Much has been written about corruption in FIFA.

But these soccer rulers knew the power of their decision. Soccer is the sport of black South Africa, and the 2010 South African World Cup meant more than just games.

Resistance and soccer
Generations roll on, and history is sometimes pushed aside by the newest big thing. One of the World Cup’s benefits is to allow South Africans and the world to remember the role of soccer in building anti-apartheid resistance.

One of the key architects in reviving those memories is history professor emeritus Chuck Korr, of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, whose years of dogged research triggered a documentary film and the book “More Than Just a Game: Football vs. Apartheid,” recently published in the United States.

It’s a fascinating tale of how men, such as Mandela, imprisoned for decades, used soccer to organize themselves, needed soccer to maintain their health and sanity and showed how soccer could forge progress in negotiations with otherwise uncompromising prison officials on infamous Robben Island, the political Alcatraz of South Africa.

Among the top player-prisoners on Robben Island was current South African President Jacob Zuma.

ESPN, in its previews of coverage of the World Cup, produced a Robben Island-linked commercial.

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Ironically, Two-Boys Gumede has never been to Robben Island, but he has heard the stories of how apartheid’s freedom fighters relied on soccer for survival. And he understands.

“In South Africa, soccer is like a religion,” Gumede said.

Still, there is much debate about the value of building stadiums with public dollars and the ultimate long-term economic and tourism impact. (Sound familiar to Minnesotans?)

Early estimates of World Cup visitors have been slashed considerably, because of a mix of factors, including the prices of traveling to South Africa, the sometimes excessive hotel rates, concerns — many unfounded — of rampant crime, and a general fear of the land generated, unfairly South Africans say, mostly by the British media.

Last month, the accounting firm of Grant Thornton scaled back its 2007 estimate of visitors to the country during the World Cup from 483,000 tourists to 373,000, more than a 20 percent drop.
That report was released while I was visiting Cape Town, site of nine of the tournament’s 64 games. We stayed at the Villa Garda, an affordable ($90 a night) bed-and-breakfast, with free parking, in an area near the University of Cape Town. The proprietor, who was looking to leverage the World Cup period to invest in some property improvements, told us then that he had no guests — zero — reserved for the World Cup period. He was baffled. In an email earlier today, he told me he had dropped his prices and had received a few bookings. Still, not a sellout, not as expected.

Power there does occasionally brown out, and Internet connectivity is catch-as-catch-can. Like in many American cities, walking on streets late at night could be dangerous for a tourist.

But the roads around the country are well-kept. The airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg have been refurbished and are sparkling. Supermarkets are well stocked. The basic infrastructure does function, and, most days, quite well. While South Africa remains a poor country, it is the jewel of Africa.

A statue of Nelson Mandela stands ready to cheer for Bafana Bafana.
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
A beaded statue of Nelson Mandela stands ready to cheer for Bafana Bafana.

The free press is filled with news of corruption within government. There is impatience with the leaders of the African National Congress, the political party that controls the government. Black people are in the same, or worse, poverty than they were 16 years ago. Townships of blacks — removed there years ago by white rulers — remain horrendous evidence of the legacy of apartheid, the lean-to, corrugated “houses” stretching for miles in cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Politics — still, it seems, mostly driven by racial differences — are raw, on the surface. But debate and reconciliation are robust, too. It is a dynamic place.

Will white South Africans support this almost-all black South African national team? It seemed that way during our visit, with so many people of all colors donning the green-and-gold national shirts. There is much at stake for all South Africans.

As Chuck Korr, author of “More Than Just a Game,” told me, the World Cup is the place and space where “South Africa assures the industrial world that it is competent enough to run anything.”

As Gumede put it, comparing his native land with his American experiences: “We’re not compulsive and we’re not efficient. We get things done, but just in time . . . This is a moment we will enjoy.”

Supporters everywhere
South Africa is a large country — about 1,000 miles from north to south and 1,000 miles from east to west — and home to an incredible amount of biodiversity. A trip to Kruger National Park in the northeast, toward Mozambique, is a must for a tourist, even a soccer tourist. Indeed, a few games will be played in Nelspruit, an hour’s drive from Kruger, where lions, leopards, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses wander. The Mbombela Stadium is a gleaming edifice just outside of mall-dotted Nelspruit, where last-minute road construction was apparent a few weeks back.

In Kruger — a park the size of New Jersey — visitors are not allowed out of their cars unless they are accompanied by armed park rangers on specially arranged morning walks. One morning recently, en route to our sunrise walk, our ranger van passed by a den of lions sleeping on the warm tar road, not far from our gated compound. Soon after, as we walked through the brush, two armed African rangers made sure no predators wanted to include a trio of Minnesotans on their breakfast menu.

During a break in our stroll, the conversation turned to soccer — to football — and to Bafana Bafana. Obi, one of our rangers, he of the dreadlocks and the encyclopedic knowledge of the flowers of the region and the telltale tracks of animals, said he was hopeful the home team could get out of its first group, which includes tough competition: opening with Mexico, ranked 17th in the world, then Uruguay (18th) and France (10th.) South Africa is ranked 90th in the world. Doing well in this tournament is going to be a challenge for the home team.

“We’ll do fine,” Obi said, rifle in hand, as he made his way through the tall grass of Mpumalanga province. “The whole country is behind the team 110 percent.” He said it as if he knew that somewhere in Minnesota, a South African soccer player named Two-Boys was set to place that multicolored flag in his window, cheer for his national team and hope for the very best.