Like pretty much everywhere but America, the most popular sport in South Africa is soccer. Yes, they call it soccer here. What they really should call it is Pirates vs. Chiefs, because that’s all it’s really about.

Indeed, that’s a Native American chief. I wonder if any Native Americans are pumped to be on the giving end of cultural imperialism for once?

While there are 16 teams in the Premier leauge, 95%+ of soccer fans support either the Kaizer Chiefs or the Orlando Pirates. Both teams have origins in Soweto (Johannesburg) and play within a few kilometers of each other. When they play each other it’s called the Soweto Derby and it can get pretty intense–many people died during a stampede in the 1990s.

While they are considered the two “best” teams in the league, a third team, the Sundowns, have won the title the last 3 years. But good luck finding a Sundowns fan.

For months I put off deciding which team to support. It’s a major commitment, maybe even bigger than who you marry. But now I’m ready to announce to the public: I’m a Pirates fan. I’ve taken it to be destiny, since I went to go see them play at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit (a World Cup stadium) on Sunday. Up the Bucs!

Now I have to get some gear and paint Pirates logos all over my house. I also need to make one of these boss hats:

That’s the style here, and it’s called a makaraba. You take a construction hat, decorate and carve it up, and wear it to show support for your team. Chiefs are yellow, Pirates are white. There’s a modern art exhibit waiting to happen if one can collect enough of these hats. Supposedly, the trend started because people wore the construction hats to protect themselves from flying beer bottles. If true, that’s smart.

Anyway, the Pirates won 1-0. They played against the Mpumalanga Black Aces. The entire stadium was a sea of Pirates white/black and Chiefs yellow (Chiefs fans were there to root against the Pirates), but there were about 50 Black Aces fans all sitting together right on the field. After a bad call, they started throwing beer and a few rushed the field:

It was pretty intense, almost as intense as trying to get a beer:

The whole experience was really fascinating. Sporting in South Africa is still divided among fairly solid race lines. Rugby is a white, especially Afrikaaner, sport. Cricket is for white and Indian people. And Soccer is very much the sport of the blacks (although Lonely Planet says non-blacks are into international soccer). While this is slowly changing, I did not see any other white people at the game other than 2 players.

I got a ride into Nelspruit from my township to a park and ride. Then I got on a bus where I was the only white person, and everyone was chanting and blasting their vuvuzelas. At the stadium, I met up with my two (white) volunteer friends and we took our seats. I then got an SMS from one of my teachers–he had spotted us from the other side of the stadium! We really stuck out. But like every other time I’ve been one of the few whites in a very black place, people have been tremendously warm and welcoming. There is a very strong desire here for more interaction between the races. It’s slowly happening, and I’m glad to be a part of it, even if the circumstances are a little different because I am an American instead of a South African.

After the game, I spent 90 minutes standing on a bus in the parking lot. The place was totally jammed up, and it was about 2 hours before we got back to the park and ride. I then had to literally fight my way onto a taxi van to get back home. There was a huge crowd of people where the taxis to my township pick up, and every time one pulled up everyone would push and shove to get on. It was fun.

I look forward to attending a Kaizer Chiefs/Black Aces games so I can root against the Chiefs.


Trevor says:

Hey did you steal my camera – I have the same set of photos! But yeah that parking lot was horrible. Originally the taxi we found going to Barberton wanted R20 per person just to drop us off in Nelspruit and we said we’d take the bus. But as we walked off they let us on for R10. Sat on the floor of a Quantum for at least an hour and half waiting to get out of the parking lot. At least they opened the door.

09 Feb 11 @ 9am

Kyle Williams says:

Great to see that you chose Pirates over Chiefs. You are now one of the happy people, the sea robbers and part of The Ghost. Up the bucs! X

23 Jul 11 @ 4pm