Neal Collins on South Africa and the 2010 World Cup, “the greatest footballing show on earth”

Neal Collins is a London-based sports journalist who grew up in South Africa but has spent the last 25 years working on Fleet Street for the Mirror, Daily Mail, Evening Standard and Daily Express. He also makes regular appearances as an analyst on Sky News and is a regular contributor for South African radio stations, including CapeTalk, KFM and 702 in the build-up to the World Cup. He has just published his first novel, A GAME APART, detailing his experiences as a young footballer and journalist in Apartheid South Africa. It is available from http://www.nealcollins.co.uk/, where you can read more about his background - and the prologue of the book.

Neal leaves for Indaba 2010, the pre-World Cup conference, in Durban next Tuesday - and from there it will be a matter of weeks before the players and fans from 31 nations fly in for Africa's first World Cup.

Here, Neal explains why it is in everyone's interests to get behind the Rainbow Nation as they host the greatest footballing show on earth...

I was nine when my father whisked us off from leafy Hampshire to the dry heat of Pretoria. Even then, I was an Arsenal supporter, though Dad extolled Portsmouth's twin title triumphs of 1949/50. We arrived in a country where rugby union was a religion and football a game for the "others". The nation stopped in 1974 for the Lions tour - undertaken despite the worldwide sporting sanctions in place at the time - and I was regularly beaten up and abused for being British as Willie-John McBride's side took the Springboks apart at all altitudes.

Heady days. South Africa was, for a young white boy, an incredible place to grow up. Wide open spaces, a swimming pool built in the garden, a house three times bigger than our bungalow in Lee-on-Solent. Ah, the innocence of youth. Problem was, I'd grown up with Ghanaian neighbours in Lee, and I had no idea you weren't supposed to speak to black people.

Within a couple of years, my gardener and I were sneaking down to the rough piece of veld at the bottom of our suburb in Eldoraigne - on an area now occupied by the local high school - to play soccer. I was the only white boy amid talented - and far larger - black men who worked locally. It would be nice to say, at this point, that I was one of the better players. But that's just fantasy. These lads, who grew up with a tennis ball attached to their toes, were simply incredible on an uneven surface with sticks lashed together for goalposts.

I went off to play for Berea Park, the local professional side in Pretoria, where I was coached by, amongst others, a chap called Roy Hodgson. Yes, that's pronounced Woy, now in charge of Fulham in the Premier League. I remember at Under 14 level, a lad called Arthur came to play for us. Brilliant he was. But a little on the dark side. Some of the members - Berea was an old railways club - complained. Arthur, a coloured lad from Elardus Park, soon disappeared.

Much later, playing for Lyttelton Manor High School, I played in the nationwide Coca Cola Cup tournament at Vaal. A team from Cape Town had reached the finals with us as the regional champions gathered to decide the national title. They had a couple of fairly dark lads in their team, which was much commented upon. Some wanted to check their identity documents to see if they were, dread the thought, "coloured". Luckily, we had Noel Cousins, who went on to play for Moroka Swallows. He scored the goals, we got to the final and lost.

It was only at Rhodes University I actually got to play football, officially, with "people of other national groups". Lads of my age with varying skin tones. All those years of kicking about with the gardeners in Eldoraigne and the waiters at nearby Zwartkop Country Club had prepared me better than most for "normal" football. But it was a meaningful moment and Ray de Allende, the "coloured" guy in our side, nearly sparked a boycott when we played the University of Port Elizabeth in the traditional Intervarsity clash. It was all over the papers.

Then came my first job and my first real adult club - Durban City. Again, I'd like to say I played some part in their NFL championship triumphs under Butch Webster and Clive Barker in 1982 and 1983. I didn't. I played for their reserves and wrote their match reports for the Natal Mercury. Then Clive decamped to Bush Bucks, the Umlazi-based township team, and went on to win the League in 1985. He also led South Africa to the Nations Cup in 1995. I tagged along happily, taking long throw-ins and winning headers for the reserves... and loving every minute as a young journalist in the townships. My dad wasn't so keen.

By now, colour was beginning to drain out of the game. Almost without realising it, we had been playing in leagues and clubs, school and playgrounds, with colour bars firmly in place. It was only when I started travelling regularly to the townships to cover games that I realised the price people were paying for that separation.

Every week there was teargas, riots, trouble in the streets of KwaMashu, Umlazi... and when we travelled inland, Soweto and Atteridgeville. I remember writing for the Rand Daily Mail when Peter "Terror" Mathebula won a flyweight world title out of the blue. We went to show him a video of the fight and found he didn't have electricity. We had to rent a generator for the day.

And the realisation dawned. This was no ordinary life. This was Apartheid. When the hand-written call to National Service came, I scarpered. I couldn't fight for a government intent on subjugation. But I wonder now if I should have stayed.

To witness football and boxing at the forefront of the struggle against the National Party's policies. They really were. Sport - and perhaps the odd jazz club in Yeoville, Johannesburg - provided the only natural way for black and white South Africans to get together. I'll never forget my first interview with Mlungisi "Professor" Ngubane in Umlazi. The Daily News splashed on it. Their first major feature on a black sportsman... circa 1984. I've still got the cuttings somewhere.

The cinemas and restaurants were a nightmare - as I found out when I dated an "Asian" woman in Durban - and normality seemed a universe away. It was only when I got to London in 1985 I realised how bizarre my lifestyle had been.

But change came - remarkable, miraculous, bloodless change. Nelson Mandela - the man we weren't even allowed to mention or see a picture of at university - was released and democracy dawned in 1994.

This history lesson has a point. Within a year, South Africa had hosted - and won - a Rugby World Cup with Jonah Lomu the dominant force. A couple of years earlier the giant Polynesian would have had to enter the All Blacks' hotel through the Bantu entrance. Players of colour were being fast-tracked into the Proteas cricket team. Suddenly a South African accent in London was acceptable, you no longer felt like a Nazi in the pub when you opened your mouth.

And here we are, barely 16 years after the momentous first democratic elections, on the verge of seeing South Africa host the continent's first World Cup.

People like Didier Drogba and Michael Essien won't have to worry about which beach they're on, which bench they sit on, what toilet they use. Fans from all over the world will be welcomed in the true Rainbow spirit. Fantastic.

But the knockers won't celebrate this miracle. In Britain, the tabloid papers warn of dark dangers. The Sun ran a spread on "Cape Fear" warning of gangs and murders in the Fair City. The Daily Star reacted to the death of fascist leader Eugene Terreblanche with headlines like "World Cup fans face panga massacre". The red-tops even suggested an earthquake may derail the tournament, and all the papers are getting stuck in over ticket sales, crime, preparations and the like.

How South Africans must feel to have their nation constantly derided, I can only guess. For me, it's wrong, it's ignorant. To simply gloss over the horrors of Apartheid and have a go at non-existent or barely perceived threats to the World Cup stinks.

So the battle goes on. Is South Africa 2010 going to be a miracle or a misery? John Barnes, the former England legend, told me a couple of weeks ago: "South Africa is like Jamaica, a beautiful country with a bad reputation. But they will hold the most passionate and colourful World Cup ever."

But for every Barnesie, there are a dozen anonymous emailers and facebookers, twitterers and bloggers suggesting the end of the World Cup is nigh. They harp on about everything from gangs to poverty. Twisting arguments, spinning the truth, forgetting that English fans - not to mention those from Italy and Holland - bring a few threats of their own too, which is why England have been neatly drawn and quartered in remote Phokeng outside Rustenburg, amid the Platinum mines. Our fans can't do too much damage there. Ask the Germans about Stuttgart four years ago, or the French about Marseille in 1998. Makes you ashamed to wear the Three Lions.

To be frank, I'm tired of hearing the remorseless knockers. Yesterday I wrote a piece about the footballing problems England's rivals are facing. Today I've quoted Aaron Mokoena as being instructed by President Jacob Zuma to win the World Cup. Then there's Matthew Booth, the Bafana Bafana centre-back, being dubbed the "unexpected face of the World Cup" as he heads in to the tournament, flanked by his model wife Sonia from Soweto.

These are the positive stories, the salient facts we need to know. I hope to encourage fans from all over the world to read my book, to gain some understanding of the miracle of modern South Africa. Apartheid could never have survived, the government had to fall, crime rates had to rise, inequality chooses various roots to level itself out.

For those who long for the old South Africa, for those who question the Rainbow Nation while Mandela grows too frail to preside over it, I say: Think again. South Africa is a far, far better country than it ever was under HF Verwoerd, BJ Voster or PW Botha, those crusty old racists who were as corrupt as any statesmen in history.

And remember the crimes committed then. In the name of Apartheid. Bulldozing homes, stealing land, exiling people to homelands they'd never heard of. I was there and stood idly by, watching the majority of South Africans condemned to the role of unwanted immigrant in their own land. It makes me sick to think of it.

But hey. This is 2010. South Africa WILL host a fabulous World Cup. I have no doubt about that. The knockers are wasting their breath. Now it's just a question of who will shine on the pitch. Me? I've put my money on Holland at 12-1. Others choose Germany at 14-1. Aging defending champions Italy may struggle, Argentina have to thrive despite Diego Maradona, South Africa have to overcome a world ranking of 88, the lowest ever for a host nation. England pray for Wayne Rooney, Brazil for Kaka, Portugal for Cristiano Ronaldo. And Spain, the Euro 2008 champions, just smile, benignly. They are rightly favourites.

But it matters not. Let's start talking football. And a fabulous World Cup to come.

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