This winter, I’ve been taking in a very different festive season. Instead of the usual miserable weather, slippy pavements and copious de-icing sessions, I’ve found myself in a genuine summer paradise.
I’m very fortunate to be spending the Christmas period travelling around South Africa; my first time even stepping on the African continent. In one trip, I’ve experienced an exponential wealth of opportunities. I’ve had an elephant sneak up behind me, a lioness saunter past the car and the most beautiful 16-hour drive through the acres of internal grasslands. I’ve taken in the dense outskirts of Johannesburg, the wild freedom of Hoedspruit and the sandy beaches of Saldanha. It’s been some holiday.
But you’re not here to read about my winter getaway, and for the purposes of this blog, neither am I. My mind is usually always on Scottish fitba’, as I’m sure much of yours are too. However, I’ve always said to myself that I ever had the chance to explore new and faraway lands, then taking in a game of local football is a must. There’s much to learn from a new culture by how the beautiful game is played there.
Since I’m only two hours from Cape Town at the time of writing this, sensibility tells us to take in a game there. Thus, Cape Town City FC find themselves under the microscope for my first ever South African football experience.
Originally founded in 1962, Cape Town City were one of SA’s more prominent football clubs. In their brief 15-year existence, they won the country’s top division twice and finished runners-up on four occasions. Their trophy cabinet also consisted of several Castle Cups, UTC Bowls and Champion of Champions Trophies (what a tournament name, eh?). Unfortunately for City, the National Football League (not to be confused with hand-egg in the States) dissolved in 1977, with Cape Town City disappearing with it.
It would take 39 long years before the club would be resurrected. In 2016, franchise rights were purchased from the defunct Mpumalanga Black Aces and the club formally renamed and moved to Cape Town. Since their return to South Africa’s top footballing table, success has been somewhat limited but is slowly building momentum. The club lifted the Telekom Knockout Cup (essentially the League Cup) on the year of their resurrection and the MTN 8 (a cup competition for the top 8 in the Premier League) two years later. The club also finished runners-up in the DStv Premier League last campaign, and despite being a long way behind champions and league dominators Mamelodi Sundowns, the feat granted them access to the African Champions League for the first time.
This season appears more challenging for City. After twelve games in a thirty-game season, the club find themselves in the lower half of the division, desperately looking up to the clubs ahead of them. Today’s opponents, Royal AM find themselves in a similar predicament. After impressively finishing third last time out, only three points behind Cape Town, they are also languishing in the lower echelons of the table. Two teams struggling for form usually equates to a decent contest, which is exactly what I was hoping for on my visit to the DHL Stadium.
Cape Town City play their home games at the mesmeric Cape Town Stadium (or DHL Stadium for sponsorship reasons). Purposely build for Africa’s first ever World Cup finals, Cape Town Stadium is an architectural masterpiece. From the outside its bowl-like shape graces the skyline, and it’s purely white exterior allows it to stand out like a sore thumb.
Inside, it is a perfectionist’s dream, with every inch of the seating and structure in symmetrical ease. The levels match one another perfectly and you can tell it was built for elite level football. Bear in mind, this is the stadium that played host to some of the 2010 World Cup’s most exciting games and moments. Portugal hammered seven past North Korea here, Germany demolished Argentina four-nil and Giovanni Van Bronckhorsts’ screamer against Uruguay helped the Netherlands on their way to the World Cup final. You can almost feel the memories of these moments ingrained in the walls of the stadium.
The arena is shared between a few different sporting clubs, including Cape Town Spurs (formally Ajax Cape Town) and two different rugby franchises. Despite this, the pitch looked pretty good, even with the weird rugby lining that was clear to see. This is obviously a facility the city takes great pride in, so its nice to witness this in action with the care taken on the playing surface.
Overall, the Cape Town Stadium is easily one of the grandest and most beautiful sporting facilities I’ve ever set foot in. I can finally say I’ve stepped foot in a hallowed ground where real life, actual World Cup games were played. What a time to be alive. It deserves the first ever 5/5 for facilities on my adventures.
Quite often, the issue with having such a massive stadium is that it can turn into a bit of an empty cauldron without enough supporters. Cape Town Stadium holds a massive 55,000 spectators, but City average just over 3,000 per game. It leaves a bit of a desolate feeling where the quietness almost develops a sense of awkwardness at the sight of tens of thousands of empty seats.
In fairness, it is clear that the club are trying to create a decent fan culture. The ‘Superfans’ set themselves up in the lower tier of the stadium, waving banners and singing melodical songs to cheer their team on. But even then, because of the harshness of the sun, the group only began this exuberant support when the shade descended on their seats. As football becomes a more popular sport at the top level in South Africa, there is a hope that attendances will rise, and stadiums become less and less desolate. However, it doesn’t help that most clubs in the Premier League play in grounds far beyond their attendance means at the moment.
I will say though, the genuine openness and friendliness I felt during the course of the experience was second to none. There is a real feeling of togetherness within the stadium, even between rival supporters and teams. This was bizarrely showcased when the stadium announcer asked the crowd to ‘give it up for the visitors’ as the away side paraded around the pitch applauding supporters from both sides. Even more so, calls for a round of applause for the away side’s substitutes further demonstrated this strange phenomenon. Can you imagine if a stadium announcer asked a typical crowd of Scottish supporters to ‘give a round of applause’ to the guy who just scored against your club as he sauntered off the pitch? There’d be riots!
In all, it is a genuine shame to see majestic stadia such as this not even being a tenth full on matchdays. It gives a slow and eerie feeling to the game and I feel a downgrade would be a sensible option for many clubs in the country to generate a larger and louder atmosphere. However, this is certainly not to discourage the efforts of the club and the already decent support base Cape Town City have. I just hope it grows, and I’m sure it will. 1.5/5.
Quality of the Match
After an impeccably observed minute’s silence for legendary football figure Pele, the game started in what I could only describe as slowly. Be prepared, it’s a theme in which will become apparent during the course of this report.
After a laid-back and injury-laden first fifteen minutes, the first real opportunity fell to the visitors. Some poor defending allowed Royal AM striker Ruzaigh Gamildein the first strike on target. Thankfully for the hosts, ‘keeper Darren Keet was alert and scuppered any danger away.
Cape Town woke up and had a chance of their own soon after. With winger Khanyisa Mayo marauding down the flank, a slight deflection and a bit luck saw him stride into the box, but from a tight angle, his strike was well saved by Royals stopper Hugo Nyame.
The lack of real quality and intensity was beginning to show, with both teams eager to break each other down in the midfield, but both sets of player unable to do so. The breakthrough came with some good play on the wing. A layoff to Mayo saw his effort saved well, but only in the direction of debutant Bertrand Mani. The Cameroonian international was on hand to finish from a tight angle and give the hosts the lead.
Royal AM posed little threat going forward but scored an equaliser a minute before the half-time whistle. A dangerous cross from the left found the diving head of Ruzaigh Gamildein, who expertly nodded past a stranded Darren Keet. Despite a lack of quality and intensity, the scores were level at the break.
Half Time: Cape Town City 1-1 Royal AM
The second half started as slowly as the first, with neither team really having the attacking impetus to trouble the other. It took a poor headed back pass from centre-back from Keanu Cupido to create the first real opportunity of the half. Gamildein raced and beat Cape Town ‘keeper Darren Keet to the ball but was unable to determine any real contact with ball. A let off for the hosts.
Cape Town broke through themselves halfway through the second period. With Darwin Gonzalez beating his man, his strike at goal was comfortable enough for Nyame to beat away.
Then, finally a piece of quality decided the game. Some excellent forward play saw substitute Mduduzi Mdantsane break on the right-hand side. His cut-back across goal was expertly met by midfielder and fellow sub Thabo Nodada, who deftly finished past a devastated Hugo Nyame. A last-minute winner for the home side.
Full Time: Cape Town City 2-1 Royal AM
As my first South African footballing experience comes to an end, it is difficult not to try and compare the differences between the game here and the fitba’ I’m used to back home.
Firstly, I don’t have a great knowledge of South African football and so can only go by what I witnessed on the day. It is admittedly a tiny sample size for such a massive and diverse country. However, I failed to see any real intensity or purpose throughout the match. Things appeared to be moving at a snail’s pace half the time, with players consistently applying the sideways easy option instead of playing forward, cut-throat passes. I obviously cannot judge whether this is a style implemented across the country or specifically these two sides, but it can often be frustrating to watch, especially when Scottish football is often incredibly fast-paced.
That being said, there are clearly some excellent, technical players in this country. Particularly on the wing, players wished to be direct and try to beat their man but were often frustrated when balls were not returned in attacking areas. Just means I’ll have to return to increase my knowledge. What a shame…
Overall, I was treated to a new brand of football which, even though slow, is an exciting experience in itself. Who can complain about seeing a last-minute winner too? Certainly not me. I feel the match deserves no more than a 2/5.
I’ll do my best to convert currencies here, but what is worth noting is how incredibly cheap things can be when the exchange rates are in your favour. For a standard ticket, sales began at R40. This equates to around £2. For a Premier League game in any country, this is quite incredible.
However, something caught my eye that encouraged me to ‘go big or go home’. Business Lounge tickets cost R150, or around £7.50. For a VIP experience, I was never going to turn my nose up at leather seating and access to a bar at the football for me and my two guests. It resulted in an incredible view and an outstanding feeling of gratitude to be in this position in such an incredible facility.
It is also worth nothing that tickets are this price to make football as affordable as possible. However, given the gulf in financial disparities and inequality in South Africa, not everyone can afford the standard R40 tickets, never mind the VIP experience. Wages are lower, good housing is often inaccessible and you’ll often see kind-hearted people selling products on the street as a means of living. At times like this, it is important to understand just how privileged we are at home.
For the sake of this experience though, it is important to recognise Cape Town City’s attempt to make this experience affordable. 5/5.
The first overseas footballing adventure scores a handy 13.5/20. New footballing experiences are a gift, whether they are at home or abroad. Despite the difference in quality, I was able to witness a completely different culture play the game how they feel necessary. I’ll be keeping my eye out on Cape Town City’s journey this season, and the PSL in general.
South Africa, you’ve been a dream.