Some years ago, I chanced on a book entitled Fever Pitch, A Fan’s Life by Nick Hornby.
With passage of time that delightful little memoir rose up the bestseller lists and assumed the status of a cult classic for fans of the English game, particularly those who followed Arsenal. Fever Pitch coincided with the globalisation of the game.
Muddy pitches, foul-mouthed hooligans waging terrace fights between different football tribes had been emblematic of the game. Some grown-ups had to step in, clean up the English game into a quality product that could go beyond provincial and appeal to the world.
In part, the sweeping of Augean stables was caused by disasters such as Hillsborough stampede and Bradford City stadium fire in which hundreds lost their lives. Weekly pitched battles between fans as well as attacks on law enforcement when rival hooligans went into collisions was not a good advert for the sport.
With Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady in charge of the country, she unleashed a crackdown on bad apples and poor standards swung into action. Muddy pitches were replaced by manicured fields resembling bowling greens. The stadia were converted to all seaters to welcome families and terraces where hooligans used to rule the roost were banned.
For possibly the same reasons that English as a language became the eponymously named country’s greatest export, when they got down to the business of reforming football, the outcome was an attractive product that invaded living rooms and pubs the world over. Hornsby’s book is set in that time of transition when the game started capturing the imagination of fans worldwide.
The invention of satellite television brought the game to hitherto unknown parts in places as far as Africa and it became a billion-pound industry. But fans didn’t know what to make of the developments. Suddenly, foreign stars from exotic countries were taking the place of local boys.
Teams were bringing in managers from overseas who did not allow local stars to nip in for a drink at the local pub as used to be the case in the good old days. Home players grumbled they were put on fancy diets and not allowed to gorge themselves on fish and chips. Not even a beer before the game. The English game was undergoing a revolution.
All the changes alienated some fans that walked from this new product, which banned terrace standing and the singing of racist and anti-Semitic chants.
Now they could be arrested or banned for life for chucking bananas at black players. At one point, angry with Arsenal for keeping faith in a defender he considered hopeless, Hornby defected to lower division, Cambridge United where he felt he had something of a say in how the team should be run.
His activism and sense of ownership though, was mostly limited to jeering the managing board and breaking out in chants for them to be sacked en-masse after another defeat. The football fan is a bundle of nerves most times. If his team is winning, he worries they’re not playing right and anyway might slip on a banana peel and blow a lead at the end.
If the team is losing, well the fan gets distressed and might opt to defect or occasion violence on the television set if not completely boycott games. The fan is a most tormented soul and leads a fraught life of perennial anxiety and angst all on account of his team or the referees. They say being a football fan is akin to nicotine addiction.
Sometimes you want to quit ,but always come back no matter the humiliations on your team. I recall Fever Pitch after reading Olebile Sikwane’s non-authorised biography of Doctor Khumalo, the South African football star from 80s and 90s. The author was raised in Selebi-Phikwe, a football town because it was heavily populated by mining migrants who had gone there to earn a living.
There was not much in terms of recreational choices besides pubs and football. Granted, the white community had its cricket, bowling and rugby clubs. It even had a theatre where it put on plays. But we swore by football so much that I think at one point our town had the most number of teams in the country.
Those who fancied their prowess, no matter how rudimentary could always find a team to play for. But most chose to be spectators who suffered an embarrassment of riches when it came to choosing a team to support. I knew many fans split between the main rivals namely, Nico United and Copper Chiefs. They would also have a local lower division squad to which they would transfer affections when the big teams were playing out of town. But there was always a third team. Everyone considering himself or herself a true fan had South African team.
Almost without exception, fans supported either Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates. Forget about the likes of Mamelodi Sundowns. It is a new team created by money and lacks the deep traditions and romanticism of the big two Soweto legacy institutions. This was in the early days of South African television, but few households owned a set.
However, on few occasions the white-dominated channel would show a big football game. Even before the small screen became commonplace, we still took keen interest in football across the border.
It was a common sight every Saturday afternoon for men carrying medium wave transistor radios to dress in their best clothes and perch on one of the hills dotting town to catch the radio commentary from Soweto.
The radio owner was king and no one dared contradict his well-informed opinions. Just from the animated commentary, the listeners could dismiss the whistleman as biased because Jomo Sono’s goal was wrongly ruled offside. Yes, all the way from the hills in Phikwe listening to the radio, consensus could be swiftly arrived at that someone must be subbed because he wasn’t playing well. Our first heroes were therefore stars from across the border.
Our local stars also looked up to the South African counterpart. In essence we were a football colony and the local stars proudly strutted to monikers such as Jomo, Ace, Hero, Congo and other colourful nicknames either bestowed by fans or the players themselves insisting they be named after their hero next door.
It is in this milieu that Olebile Sikwane grew up. Although a Copper Chiefs man, a team whose every misfortune we Nico fans celebrated as if we had won the league, he was also a Kaizer Chiefs supporter.
Not only is the book a detailed study of the life of his hero, but its broad sweep also introduces to the uninitiated the origins and upward trajectory of the game in the neighbouring country. Someone once opined apartheid possibly lasted as long as it did because many black men and youth were busy with football and not putting enough effort in the liberation struggle.
Without question, the game in that country remains popular and I for instance, watch more PSL games than the much-vaunted EPL. In South Africa, the league always goes to the wire unlike in England where already midway through the champions elect are ahead by 22 points. Even across the border, fans now rally for an English or Spanish team. But the league remains a commercial success and runs one of the richest championships on the continent due to ample broadcast revenues. For players from the continent’s football backwaters, the major ambition is to ply their trade across the border and with good connections, the most talented can use it as a stepping stone to European leagues. In his book, Sikwane demonstrates his scholarship of the South African game with confidence buttressed by well-researched observations. Although a football work, the author underpins his narrative by providing some insight into the socio-political landscape of the times as freedom beckoned on the horizon. But the book primarily revolves around Doctor Khumalo.
I must say I never rated him much as a player. His emergence was attributable to strong family ties with Kaizer Chiefs, which this year commemorates its golden jubilee. Doctor broke into the scene with the country about to make its return to the international family of footballing nations and sorely needed a pin-up boy.
At the time, Jomo and Ace Ntsoelongoe, international icons whose playing exploits were immortalised in the ballads of the singer John Moriri were retired and South Africa needed another super star.
In yet another development, at Kaizer Chiefs the likes of Scara Thindwa, Teenage Dlada, Marks Maponyane were past their best and the stage was set for the player to seize this moment. Popularly known as 16V, good looks he certainly had in abundance and had many a woman who didn’t know much about football swooned over his images spread in glossy magazines. In other words, he was a bankable commercial project. For this reason, his reasonably okay talents were often embellished.
The rest of Kaizer Chiefs and even Bafana Bafana, the national team played around the lad. The game plan always had him at the epicentre because he was the superstar and except for Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Maradona, very few so called stars can carry a bucket of water for their teammates. It’s always the other way round. Sikwane is truly fascinated by the player and going through the pages of his 152 page book, the intimacy with which he unearthed the Doctor Khumalo story is impressive to say the least. He delves into the man’s personal relationships of which apparently being a private person, not much is known about.
Except rumours of dating a slay queen niece of Nelson Mandela, and a failed marriage to a Namibian smash hit little about his life outside the playing field is available in the public domain. The author’s depth of football knowledge, which has seen him dabbling in team administration both here and in South Africa, as well as being an agent, columnist and talent scout is impressive.
And in writing so consummately about a subject who apparently did not want to be associated with the project, Sikwane has done a splendid job. Doctor was recently quoted saying, in infantile tone that someone in Botswana had written a book which he wanted nothing to do with. But in fairness the book amounts to a hagiographic paean of admiration to a hero whose career the author has tracked since his debut July 17, 1987 against Orlando Pirates. This work on Doctor is a labour of love and the author proclaims himself the greatest of Doctor’s fans in the world.
He is unapologetic that his is a celebration of the life of his hero whose legacy he wants to cement. However, a more critical assessment of Doctor Khumalo would reveal that he played 15 of his 17 years at home, hardly qualifying to be a global superstar as the sales blurb alleges. When the floodgates opened after 1996 Cup of Africa Nations victory for South African players to grace the pitches of Europe, Sikwane’s idol could not cut muster, only securing a contract in America with Columbus Crew, hardly a world beater. An unsuccessful sojourn followed in Argentina with lowly Ferro Carril.
On this evidence a global superstar he never was but a regional superstar he was for qualities that were mainly off field. Although nowhere as quirky and witty as Hornby’s gamut of frustrated fan emotions in Fever Pitch, the Doctor book is still recommended reading. Written in a languid, conversational and non controversial style, it has an index of some 200 references although one suspects there are more than a few off record sources. Also noteworthy is that in the tiny canon of African football books, very few are written by indigenes. They are penned either by expatriates or white journalists writing about African footballers. For his efforts alone Sikwane deserves commendation.
Published in America by Authorhouse mid-2019, one wishes the book could get a South African reprint to benefit from a bigger market in the home country of the subject. As for Doctor Khumalo himself, some of us would not lose much sleep whether he reads the book or not. No one ever said his authority is needed for something to be written about his life and career.
He is public property after all and without his adoring fans he would be nothing. The retired player is lucky that Sikwane is a writer-cum-camp follower wearing rose-tinted glasses, even fawning over his hero at times. I can only imagine if this biography was in the form of a hatchet job. No doubt plenty of skeletons would have tumbled out to the gleeful delight of those of us who always thought Doctor Khumalo was overhyped and overrated.