The special football culture of each individual country has become more similar as the game has become more globalised. In South Africa however, we surely remain unique. This has been made clear to me over the last week as I have followed the MTN8 tournament on social media, while on holiday in Holland. Near deserted stadiums, away fans massively outnumbering home fans and that nonsense in the north where both teams claimed to be the home side and warmed up together on the same half of the pitch. This all takes some explaining to the European football supporters here who watch from packed stadiums, with masses of home fans cheering on the local side and smaller groups of away fans chanting back to them. It is the sort of vibe we never get in South Africa. Many supporters would like to see it – but beware there are also downsides.
I had not even departed from the plane before a local supporter of one of Ajax Amsterdam’s rivals spotted me wearing Ajax gear. Because Ajax Amsterdam had lost 4-1 to Rostov in the Champions League the previous evening he spent a good few minutes rubbing my face in it. I don’t think he actually believed there was another Ajax side in Cape Town, so he just kept laughing at my despair because Ajax had again been eliminated from the competition before the group stages.
It is all just ‘friendly banter’ of course, and many of us get the same from Chiefs or Pirates supporters here in South Africa. Sadly it gets more serious in Europe. I am staying in Rotterdam, home of Ajax Amsterdam’s fierce rivals Feyenoord (who are currently top of the Dutch Eredivisie). It is just not possible to walk around in Ajax gear here. You might get dirty looks on the streets, you might get terrible service in shops and restaurants, and even worse you might get physically assaulted when trying to enjoy a beer in the evening. The rivalry really is that intense – so the Ajax gear stays in the case. I would never go anywhere near either city on match day. In the past supporters have turned up with home made bombs and attacked players of the opposition. In an attempt to control the situation the police have initiated a match day alcohol ban, with a massive on the spot fine of 450 Euros for those caught offending – that’s a fine of R6,750 for drinking a beer!
Looking at the pictures from the MTN8 game at Cape Town Stadium it was a different world. Yellow and black Chief’s shirts everywhere, mixed in with a few Pirates shirts who were there to hope their rivals failed, and of course a few red and white shirts from our own curious supporters. It is a scenario that would give a European stadium manager the shock of their life. Even though they play in the same colours I cannot imagine a Feyenoord and Ajax supporter ever watching a game next to each other in their respective team shirts. In fact, the police would intervene and prevent away and home fans from mixing inside the ground. When the fans do mix outside the ground, often there are some who want to take the rivalry too far and trouble will start. We should be grateful we don’t get this unpleasant side of the game in South Africa. Crowd trouble, when we do get it, tends to come from fans of the big clubs when they don’t get their way on the pitch, and is directed towards the officials or the coaches (RDS himself was once a victim at the hands of Orlando Pirates fans). For fans it is easy enough to avoid, unlike the situation in some parts of the world where you can turn the corner and literally walk straight into a fistfight between rival fans.
I am sure the few curious AjaxCT fans enjoyed their big match experience last week. The Cape Town City FC players enjoyed their victory judging from the post match celebration shots. In contrast to when AjaxCT win such games, it was clear that their celebrations were all among themselves. With no support base they do not yet have the equivalent of a block 116 to come over and celebrate with. While our football culture has the positive side of allowing rival fans to mix safely, we have the negative side of too many artificial franchises that are created for business men rather than for supporters. The semi-finals of the MTN8 now feature two such sides in Cape Town City and Chippa United, who move around the country with a modest support base that is likely to disappear during the first poor run of form. In Holland, Ajax, Feyenoord and all of their rivals have existed for many decades and have a support base that is deeply rooted in their communities. They may not like each other very much, but it would be unthinkable to just move to a new location to satisfy the business or personal reasons of the owner.
In most of the world it would also be unthinkable to simply change the team you support when a potentially more successful option becomes available. It seems we have a few Capetonians that have already decided that they prefer the look of the new franchise side from Mpumalanga. I don’t like it and I don’t understand it, but with the peaceful and friendly footballing culture that exists in South Africa at least we can safely share the stadium and enjoy a beer with the game.