The Other Legacy Question

Siphiwe Tshabalala celebrates scoring the opening goal of the World Cup (Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)

What happens on July 12th? It’s a question that’s been asked from the moment South Africa was awarded the World Cup. Once it’s all over, what will happen to the stadiums? What will happen to the economy?

There’s another question that hasn’t been asked quite so much, yet for football fans, it’s rather important: what will happen to South African football?

The country’s Premier Football League (PSL) is swimming in money. It has the seventh largest TV deal of any domestic league in the world and thanks to the World Cup it now has some rather nice stadiums to play in. There is just one problem: while football may be popular in South Africa, South African football is not. There is only one game that brings in the crowds: the Soweto derby, Orlando Pirates vs Kaizer Chiefs. Most other matches, even if Pirates or Chiefs are one of the two teams playing, struggle to attract many fans. Attendances in the low thousands are the norm.

One of the biggest criticisms of the World Cup was that ordinary South African football fans were priced out. But this now provides an opportunity. Many of those South Africans who did buy tickets were not traditional football fans. Most of those I spoke to on my visits to Football City, Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld said it was their first time. The PSL needs to take advantage and they should offer this incentive: bring a used World Cup ticket to any PSL match and get in free. You went to watch four World Cup matches? Congratulations, you get to watch four PSL games free.

Most of those fans won’t take up the offer, finding the prospect of Platinum Stars versus Jomo Cosmos not quite as enticing as Brazil versus Holland. Many who do won’t come back again. But some will. They will get bitten by the bug in just the same way as every other football fan in the world did after going to their first match. They just need a little prod.

There are other things the PSL should consider, including restricting the sale of tickets to Pirates v Chiefs matches to those who have gone to at least one other match that season. They will also need a good advertising campaign, but again, that shouldn’t be too difficult. The stars who shone for Bafana – Siphiwe Tshabalala, Itumeleng Khune and Bongani Khumalo – all play for local clubs. There should be posters up now, encouraging fans to come and see the stars of the World Cup when the new season starts next month.

There is one other way to draw in the crowds, and this could also have an effect on the standard of football. South African football could do with a David Beckham, a star player who will add thousands to the gate wherever he plays. The chances of the original Beckham swapping LA Galaxy for Mamelodi Sundowns are slim, but what about Nwankwo Kanu? A genuine African superstar coming to the end of an illustrious career, Kanu would appreciate one last pay-day and would like the idea of being seen, once again, as the star of the show.

If Kanu’s move worked it would attract other stars, just as Beckham’s LA experiment appears to have persuade Thierry Henry that the MLS is the perfect place to wind down. In a year’s time Patrick Vieira might start thinking his time at the top level is coming to an end and consider a move down south.

South African football has a golden opportunity. Despite the success of the World Cup football here is in a pretty poor state. The national team performed well considering their limitations but qualifying for the next World Cup will be an uphill task. If South African football is going to develop then it needs more paying customers. There will never be a better chance to find them.