Cape Town Football Fans

They cheer for everbody but their own teams... How to understand Capetonian Soccer Fans?

Proud of their city, but not of their teams, Capetonians are too busy rooting for far-away squads to notice their own sides. Does this make any sense at all?

If you like football, you've probably noticed that Cape Town fans are more obsessed with distant soccer clubs than their own. They've got two good teams in the South African pro leagues - Ajax Cape Town and FC Santos - but they're not so interested in them. And unlike other sporting cities, they don't care about the rivalry between them either.

Yet Capetonians love football. So how can we understand what they're doing?

Rooting reveals fans' souls

Essentially, fandom is about identification with a team and its performance. Fans see the outcome of games as a reflection of themselves. If their team loses, they lose. If their team wins, they win too. That's the drama of rooting for a sports team. People get to participate in larger public narratives as they ride the emotional rollercoaster of unscripted competition.

Of course, fans usually root for their home sides because they share a connection to the area. This is so pervasive that we take this for granted. But not in Cape Town. So who do they root for?

Coloured Claims on Manchester and Liverpool

Across the Cape Flats, coloured soccer fans proudly proclaim loyalty to Manchester United or Liverpool FC through bumper stickers, banners and jerseys. Never mind that they've never been to the UK, or that that Liverpudlians wouldn't know Cape Town from Cape Cod. Doesn't matter. For these soccer nuts, it's all about the Reds and the Red Devils.

And it seems to be just a coloured thing. Local whites don't bother much with football, and blacks have their own favourites. So what is it about this rivalry that touches a chord for Cape coloureds?

Some say it's because of the "quality of play" from the English sides. Fair enough, but lots of European clubs play just as well, and no one pays them any mind. Others say that coloureds feel ambivalent about anything local, and that they see anything international as more prestigious. Perhaps. But really, I think there's something deeper going on. Something historical. Something cultural.

OK, perhaps we're venturing into murky territory here, but hear us out. We suspect that the experience of British colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries had a major impact on how Cape coloureds see the world. For it was during this period that this "mixed race" population became a self-identifying group. And when they started to articulate their political desires "as coloureds" (distinct from "Europeans" or "Africans") during the Mineral Revolution of the 1880s, they did so as colonized subjects in the powerful British Empire. That fact structured their sense of identity and prestige.

Cape Town as Cultural Intersection

But also, Cape coloureds have always lived at a global maritime intersection. They've dealt with countless peoples and cultures. It's natural for them to identify with overseas practices. The ocean connects them to other parts of the world rather than separates them. So they feel closer to New Orleans and Newcastle than landlocked upcountry dorps like Nelspruit. Their ceaseless interaction with foreigners has made them culturally acquisitive, incorporating alien styles, ideas and affections, then refashioning them to their own liking. Think: minstrelsy, jazz, Sufism and cuisine.

Think also: their attachment to Manchester United and Liverpool. When football became the globally dominant sport some decades ago, and mass media could broadcast it right into their homes, coloureds got hooked by the rivalry between England's top teams. Today, following in the rooting traditions of their fathers, they're still hooked.

British connection runs deep. Even today, coloured families still show off their crockery in glass display cabinets, as if this were the Victorian era. Poor township folks are still busy trying to prove their "respectability" through florally-designed dishes and saucers. And don't get me started on the crocheted doilies they put on their sofas and tables, or their devotion to Earl Grey tea! It's like the Cape Flats has been caught in a colonial time warp, with each family competing to display the most antiquated symbols of English refinement!

Connections between colonizers and colonized can run deep, and in surprising ways. Coloureds' identification with Man U and Liverpool reminds us that these Capetonians are connected to people and places far beyond the Mother City: genetically, historically and culturally. And just because the British Empire is klaar doesn't mean that certain bonds of affection don't remain. They do.

Black Be-Longing: Orlando Pirates vs Kaiser Chiefs

Black South Africans at least choose their sporting beloveds from within the country. Picture this: at every Ajax and Santos game, hundreds of Africans rock up in Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs gear. They cheer for their unseen teams as if they're right there on the pitch. Sometimes these fans outnumber supporters for the teams that are actually playing! These loyal fans stand opposite each other singing their team songs while jeering each other. It's a bit bizarre, but for these fans, every football match is an opportunity to demonstrate fealty to their teams.

This is South Africa's greatest football rivalry: Orlando Pirates vs Kaiser Chiefs. These Sowetan teams have deep histories in the black community. Just like coloureds who root for distant teams, black Capetonians expose a deep sense of longing through their cheering. Their identification with Gauteng sides reveals how important the history of migration, mining and upcountry life is to a sense of black belonging. To put it bluntly: the Western Cape is not a meaningful repository of black experience and identification for most blacks. At least not yet. Joburg remains the epicentre of urban African culture and prestige.

The "Buccaneers" and "Amakhosi" represent the peak of national football prowess and black sporting achievement. Founded in 1937, the Pirates hail from Orlando, one of Joburg's oldest and most famous townships. The Chiefs were started by football great Kaiser Motaung who played professionally in the States for the Atlanta Chiefs. When he returned home, he started his own club in 1970.

Soweto as the Black Soul of South Africa

But why do black Capetonians root for those teams rather than the local ones? It's because they see Soweto as within their orbit of identification. Even if they live in Cape Town, they're connected to the City of Gold through the history of migrant labour and ethnic associations. The Xhosa have been a key part of the Johannesburg story. And just like coloureds who learned their rooting preferences from their fathers, Cape Town blacks grew up identifying with the Pirates or Chiefs based on family allegiances.

So it's a funny situation: while the local teams try to woo the Cape Town crowds with success and style, the fans dream of far-away loves. That's no disrespect to Ajax and Santos. They're stand-up teams. It's just that the fans' hearts are already spoken for. History and culture have teamed up to over-ride the lure of local attachments.

What about Bafana Bafana?

Most of what I've said refers to club football. But when it comes to the 2010 World Cup, all South Africans will be rooting for the national team. Though few expect much from the home side, local fans are desperate for them to make a good showing. They'll be thrilled if their squad advances to the second round, as it would prove that they're worthy competitors.

It's true that blacks show more interest in Bafana Bafana than coloureds and whites who tend to admire dynamos like Brazil and Germany. But during 2010, South Africans will cheer for the home team with gusto and sincerity. Accompanied by the steady drone of vuvuzelas, they'll don their jerseys and paint their faces, rooting for The Boys. That's guaranteed.

But once the World Cup love-fest is over, fans will go right back to their favourite club rivalries. Reds vs Red Devils. Pirates vs Chiefs. It will be typical Cape Town once again: conflicted, contradictory, and confoundingly cosmopolitan.



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