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Team SA

I’m a fan of American football. I like the mix of chess, athletic grace and brute force. I like the stop-start nature of the game. I like the tension as the team with the ball get set to make their third attempt to move 10 yards in three plays or lose possession if they fail. Each play is full of exquisite possibility. But I wasn’t especially excited by the prospect of last Sunday’s season finale, the Superbowl — or, to be more exact, Superbowl XLII, Roman numerals being an essential part of the brand.

It looked to be a mismatch, the unbeaten New England Patriots versus the New York Giants who were coming to the contest with a very mixed record, the scurviest of underdogs. Too many Superbowls have been lopsided blowouts, and this had the makings of another. In the end, the habit was too hard to break and I watched. Maybe the ads — often the best part of the Superbowl experience — would make it worthwhile.

It turned out to be one hell of a game as the Giants’ defensive unit unexpectedly smothered Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a three-time Superbowl winner who many think is the greatest to date to have played the game. The question throughout was whether the Giants, doing a great job at stopping the Patriots from scoring, could put any points of their own on the board. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, has wonderful blood lines. His brother Peyton steered the Indianapolis Colts to the championship last year and his father is worshipped in New Orleans where he quarterbacked the Saints. But there seemed something lacking in the Manning at hand. His eyes had a deer-in-the-headlights quality when things were going badly. His helmet seemed a little large for his head, reinforcing the spindliness of his physical presence. His play could be erratic.

So when we came to the closing minutes with the Patriots four points up, the promise of an historic upset was fading. As the Giants went on offence for what would probably be the last time, needing a seven-point touchdown and not just a three-point field goal to win, the wise money was on the Patriots’ defence.

Then came the moment of truth. Manning had one more play to make the yards the team needed to keep the ball, and there were many yards to be made. Realistically, the only hope was a long forward pass. The Patriots knew it and were ready. As the play developed, it looked for all the world as though Manning was going down for the last time under half a ton of defensive linemen. Somehow he squeezed out of the melee and got off his pass to a wide receiver, David Tyree, who had a Patriot on his back like a buffalo-hide overcoat. Tyree leapt up, caught the ball with one hand and pressed it to his helmet as he fell back on the defender who was doing his best to punch it loose. Both crashed to the ground flailing to get or keep custody. Tyree kept it. Hollywood could not have scripted it better. A couple of plays later, almost as an afterthought, Manning threw the winning touchdown.

Afterwards, Manning described that final drive as the thing for which quarterbacks live. Relatively speaking, everything else is filler. Game’s on the line. Score, you win, you’re the hero, you’ll be watched in highlight films for as long there’s a National Football League. Don’t make the yards, you lose, you’re the goat, instantly forgettable.

I’m not a great fan of sports metaphors, but watching South Africa’s latest travails this is one I can’t resist. South Africa is a little bit like the Giants this year. It is having a rocky season. It has dug itself an enormous hole by failing to make proper preparation for its energy needs. Its politicians seem to be more interested in who gets what job than in how to move the ball down the field. Those who revel in Schadenfreude at the sight of African misadventure are as happy as pigs in clover.

I’d say that for South Africa, the game right now is pretty much on the line. But that should not be cause for resignation or despair. To the contrary, in the Manning spirit, this should be an exciting time, the moment when things get vivid, a time to come together to solve another huge problem and show the world we have the right stuff. South Africa isn’t the only country to have made a balls-up on the energy front. In Sunday’s Washington Post, residents the Washington metropolitan area were warned to get ready for rolling black-outs in the next several years because of policy mistakes and lack of infrastructure investment right on their own doorsteps. So let’s get over the finger-pointing and start getting creative.

When I was in South Africa last October (I’ll be back later this week) I had some buttons made bearing the legend “Proud to play for Team SA”. This was the result of some noodling between my London-based colleague John Battersby and myself on how to harness the energy and excitement of 2010 in ways that would leave a lasting social legacy. We said, let’s embrace the sports metaphor and design a campaign around the idea that it will not just be Bafana Bafana competing in 2010, but the whole country and that all of us need to feel we are part of Team SA.

Then we widened the discussion within the International Marketing Council to consider what, in practical terms, it would mean to play for Team SA. How would players demonstrate their pride in being part of the team? How would they contribute to making South Africa a winning nation? We drew up a preliminary list: players are engaged in their communities; they vote; they practise ubuntu; they are proud of their country and want to do everything they can to make visitors feel welcome; they don’t buy stolen property; they help fight crime; they don’t pay or demand bribes; and they are respectful of women and responsible about sex and alcohol. And so on. If you have any other ideas, let’s hear them.

At this point, I would certainly add that players save energy and join in a national effort to turn the current crisis into a national win. This is an opportunity to showcase South Africa’s greatest strengths — its creativity and its capacity to solve the toughest problems in novel yet practical ways. Go team!