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God and vuvuzelas defend New Zealand

By Roger Dickinson

Prior to South Africa hosting and eventually winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup, then newly appointed South African minister of finance, Trevor Manuel, was severely criticised when he said he still supported the New Zealand All Blacks over the Springboks. This was heretical if not treasonous speech to many rugby-loving South Africans. As controversial and misplaced as Manuel’s comments were, they were probably true for most black rugby supporters of his generation. In fact it probably is still the case. My 60-year-old mother is a case in point. Although a convert to the Rainbow Nation’s ideals and sporting teams, her heart and voice still lifts at the sight of the Haka, an All Back rolling maul or Joe Rokocoko storming down the wing for a try.

You see it’s a history thing. Under the 40 years that an apartheid government ruled South Africa, the All Blacks were the one team who could beat the white oppressors at their own sacred game. That the very mention of New Zealand evoked awe and fear in the hearts of “our enemies”, was a silent yet inspirational triumph for a powerless people. Then there was the name — the All Blacks. That New Zealand probably had its own racial issues wasn’t important — these were “black” players. And like the West Indies in cricket and Brazil in soccer, they were the best in the world.

So it was with great historical irony that I joined more than 20 000 South African’s at Ellis Park Stadium on Saturday night to support the New Zealand soccer team against Iraq in their Fifa Confederations Cup group match. Bafana Bafana were playing against European champions Spain and were expected to lose — so we needed something from New Zealand in order for South Africa to qualify for the semi-finals. And we got it …

As my Dad and I took our seats, the New Zealand national anthem was concluding asking God to defend New Zealand. Now it may have been the clear Highveld air or the hopes of 45 million South Africans, but the Almighty definitely heard this one.

In addition to Divine intervention, I do believe that it was the unholy racket made by the crowd blowing their vuvuzelas that lifted the All Whites. The noise that thousands of these plastic trumpets emit, has caused quite a bit of controversy at the Confed Cup and Fifa is considering whether to ban them or not. As I joined in on my yellow vuvu I could clearly understand why. It is a loud meaningless clamour that just never stops. There is no tune, no cultural significance and no point really. It’s just a hell of a lot of fun!

Under this cloud of noise, the All Whites were awesome! They defended manfully and, contrary to some media reports, actually dominated the game and should’ve scored at least two or three goals. It did seem to us that the New Zealand strikers seemed unable or more accurately, unused, to scoring goals. Through it all the South African crowd were behind this team of clearly limited ability and experience. We shouted and blew our vuvus and banged on our seats every time they entered the Iraqi half and jeered every time the Iraqi’s ventured near the New Zealand penalty area.

It was incredibly unfair to the Iraqi team. They were not supposed to be the enemy and if anyone deserved sympathy it was this exiled team from a war-torn country. They also did come the closest to scoring of the two teams, twice demanding excellent saves from the All White keeper and once even hitting the ball straight at his head.

But in the end, an above average goalkeeper, decent defenders, God and our vuvuzelas kept the ball out of the New Zealand net. Finally the whistle blew with a 0-0 score line. New Zealand had denied Iraq two points and South Africa would qualify for the semi-finals. As we joyfully streamed out of the stadium the irony of a mostly black South African crowd supporting a team called the All Whites seemed lost on everyone apart from those of us who stop to think about such useless issues.

Dickinson is a freelance writer