Christopher Rodrigues
Christopher Rodrigues

No beautiful game at school

It’s not that there’s no demand for association football — far from it. Both in the 80s, when I attended the South African College Schools (Sacs), and even more so now — when soccer is the breaktime pick-up game of choice — the round ball is evidently popular. Why then is Mzansi’s majority sport still not played at SA’s oldest* school? This is not a parochial question: it speaks to a certain indifference shared by a number of former Model C and private schools.

Having recently spent a week at my alma mater on assignment for a January feature in Rolling Stone, I’m dismayed by the persistent prejudice towards the game by the powers that be. A good number of parents and pupils expressed similar frustrations; so did some members of staff.

The usual fallacy trotted out by the defenders of the status quo is to appeal to the “nature” of the school: a tradition that has groomed (the most recent being Percy Montgomery) 30 rugby Springboks.

What these conservatives, however, fail to mention, is that football was also officially played for two-and-a-bit decades from 1905 onwards. Indeed, Sacs put together competition-winning teams long before any of these latter-day traditionalists were even born!

Anyhow, “tradition” is of dubious value. To quote alumnus and former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs: “Although the school was physically in South Africa, it was never truly what its name projected it to be: a college for all of South Africa.”

Another questionable bit of logic suggests that the school can’t provide its pupils with 101 sporting codes. My old headmaster — the current incumbent declined an interview on several subjects — puts it like this: “We don’t offer — to be facetious — underwater macramé.”

But football isn’t some fanciful pastime: it’s estimated that there are 250 million players in more than 200 countries. Many billions more follow it. Such is the popularity of the game that one-time goalkeeper Pope John Paul II quipped: “Among all unimportant subjects, football is by far the most important.”

Here’s an idiot’s guide as to how it would work at the Newlands school:

Let the pupils decide. If there’s enough demand then there’s no logistical problem. In other words, the other main winter sports’ loss of a field would be balanced by football’s numerical gain. On the other hand, if there isn’t a sufficient complement then — at very least — allow those boys who would play club soccer not to also have to play a compulsory (another debate altogether) school sport. It’s really straightforward.

One further attempted rationalisation that I heard from a Sacs rugby stalwart was that the opposition would be “disorganised”.

What that referred to wasn’t exactly clear. Looking over the fixture lists of the likes of the German International School, Herzlia or Reddam House would suggest that other suburban schools in existing Cape Town leagues are faring just fine. So too, in the rest of the country, are high-ranking rugby establishments that (and this dispels that otherwise enticing explanation that all this hidebound resistance has to do with the “rugbynomics” of sponsorship etc) also play soccer: Dale College, Grey College (host of two of the best schools’ tournaments), Hilton College, KES, Kearsney College, Maritzburg College, Michaelhouse and (where it’s the main code) Westville Boys’ High School.

It’s this bad-mouthing of a shambolic football fraternity though that reminds me of what the same headmaster once told an assembly: “Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen.” When, during our interview, I ask him about this old chestnut (I ought to have mentioned that even toffish Eton fields 24 teams!) he singles out the behaviour of Premiership football players who backchat referees: “Is that what you want in sport?”

But it could just as well be asked of rugby union: What of brawling, gouging and stamping? What of drugs — a “doping plague”, to borrow a phrase from Sports Illustrated — in the schoolboy game?

All sports consist of the same human admixtures, but soccerphobia has often intersected class, ethnic and gender prejudices: from the Macquarie Colloquial Australian Dictionary’s description of “wogball” and right-wing Americans’ portrayal of soccer as “communist” and “gay”, to the origins of the word “hooligan” that once referenced the criminalised Irish. In South Africa too, football has been viewed as a “black sport”.

To be sure, Sacs claims a liberal tradition. Through the Open Schools’ Movement of the 80s, it made a contribution to challenging segregation. It’s now long overdue that it (and other schools) allows its present pupils the simple freedom to play the game of their choice.

* A bit of antiquarianism was debunked in the letters page (February 4) of the Cape Times when Neil Veitch, author of a history of the South African College, wrote that recent research reveals that it isn’t “the oldest school”. That distinction would appear to belong to the LR Schmidt Moravian Primary School in Genandendal founded (91 years before Sacs) in 1738. After speaking to the deputy headmaster, I’m delighted to report that that age-old Overberg school does, as a matter of fact, offer soccer.

Versions of this post appeared both on rollingstone.co.za and in the Cape Times.

Listen to an interview about this column on 567 CapeTalk.

Read the January Rolling Stone feature article on Sacs.

Follow Chris Rodrigues on Twitter: @klaaskatkop

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