Football doesn't have to be black or white, say those who remember when a nonracial era beckoned.
Thirty-four years ago almost to the week, a crack of major significance appeared in the ugly wall of apartheid as it was applied on the sports fields. For the first time, on March 16 1976 to be exact, the Nationalist government permitted a multiracial sports team based on merit alone to represent South Africa.
The 14-man football squad on that historic night in a capacity-filled Rand Stadium – with the local team labelled Springboks and not Bafana Bafana – contained seven white footballers and seven black, and outplayed an Argentinian Selection 5-0, with the notable contribution of four goals from boy wonder Jomo Sono.
It was an inspired performance of truly international class, despite the fact that most of the Argentinian line-up consisted of international stars who had already retired and were no longer actively part of the mainstream of the South American country's set-up.
Two months later, a nonracial, merit-based South African combination with many of the same players trounced a fully representative Zimbabwe, then still known as Rhodesia, by a staggering 7-0 margin.
To appreciate the impact of this, when South Africa played Zimbabwe again 18 years later after readmittance into Fifa, it was South Africa who received a 4-1 mauling in Harare.
Hand in glove
One observer described the melding of white and black South Africans in representing the country as akin to a sturdy white hand fitting snugly into a svelte black glove as though the two were meant for each other.
Review the players who represented South Africa in those inspirational games and it is little wonder that many maintain that a more accomplished football side has not represented the country since.
Among the players in the class of 1976 were Sono, Ace Ntsoelengoe, Webster Lichaba, Patson Banda, Shaka Ngcobo, Computer Lamola and Yster Khomane, who constituted the black complement, with Martin Cohen, Stuart Lilley, Bobby Viljoen, Len Wilkinson, Dave Herholdt, Ian Bender and Rodney Kitchin making up the white segment.
Certainly it contained many more dynamic and charismatic players than you would find in the Bafana team of today.
"It was meant to be the start of an inspirational new era," says Cohen, the former Highlands Park midfield anchor, who went on to enjoy a successful spell in the North American Soccer League as well.
"I learnt a lot about ball skills from players like Jomo, Ace and Webby [Lichaba] – and I like to think they benefited as well.
"But instead of it being the start of an era, what has happened since is that the exciting unity between white and black South African players was effectively stillborn – and this is simply because, over the years, fewer and fewer white players have appeared in the mainstream of our soccer," Cohen says.
"Today you can almost count the number of white players in the Premier League on one hand."
Lilley, who became a dominant defensive influence with Orlando Pirates after Highlands Park sold their first-division franchise to Sono, shares Cohen's sentiments.
"Those games in which I represented South Africa in 1976 will remain indelibly as a highlight of my career," he says. "So will the period I spent with Pirates."
Diluted player pool
By the time Bafana annexed the country's solitary African Nations Cup title in 1996, the diluted influence of white players in the PSL was already in full swing.
But Clive Barker, who coached the side, says: "I was still able to include five white players with special talents like captain Neil Tovey, Mark Fish, Eric Tinkler and Roger de Sa in the 23-man squad. Admittedly there were not that many whites around to choose from but more than today and a 20% complement was not that bad.
"Last year, there was only one white player in Bafana's Nations Cup squad and Dean Furman, the one exception, has been living in England since he was a kid."
Barker says that, in his long career in South African football, both as a player initially with Durban City and Durban United, white players have played a significant but diminishing role in the goalkeeping, central defending and striking positions.
"What a difference a Fish, a Lilley, a Tovey or strikers like Shane MacGregor and Jingles Pereira, who ended their careers with Kaizer Chiefs, would make today."
Tovey believes both the government and the Safa controlling administration are not making sufficient efforts to encourage white players back into the soccer mainstream.
"We hear a lot about revitalising the development process," he says, "but few, if any, of the procedures mooted are directed towards white youngsters, an area where attention is badly needed.
"Also, the real nurseries for talent to blossom in the various sporting codes is in the schools. And, believe it or not, even in this new era of supposed enlightenment in South Africa, the majority of schools attended by white youngsters still discriminate unashamedly against soccer and don't include the game on their sporting calendar.
"I believe the government should intervene in this respect," says Tovey. "It might not be race discrimination but it is blatant discrimination against soccer. Headmasters should not be allowed to prevent students who want to play soccer from playing the game."
Football is still of major interest among white South Africans but, instead of youngsters progressing from the amateur ranks to PSL level, and their parents following Kaizer Chiefs, Pirates, Mamelodi Sundowns and the other Premier League clubs, their attention is focused almost exclusively on glamour overseas clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.
To discover what has prompted this unnatural trend, one needs to venture back to the 1970s when the apartheid regime decided to relax its discriminatory policies on the sports field.
But, as far as soccer was concerned, it was implemented initially with a disastrous multinational policy. This meant that teams of ethnic groupings could play against each other, but the teams and spectators were still racially segregated. White teams played against black teams and the fans were divided similarly into white and black sections.
It created what was in effect a "race war" environment and ugly incidents abounded in and around the perimeters of stadiums.
White fans, because of this and what was in some cases an ingrained racial prejudice, literally fled from the soccer scene and have rarely returned in large numbers since.
Then, to aggravate the situation, clubs with a substantial number of white players, such as Highlands Park, Durban City, Cape Town City and Hellenic, gradually went out of business and disappeared.
Can the trend now be reversed after all these years?
"I don't know if it can," says Moroka Swallows chief executive Leon Prins, "but I do know it would be a major boost for South African soccer if we could get a large number of white players into the PSL and similarly fill the stands with white spectators as well."
Ironically, one of the paltry five or so whites at present playing in the league is Larry Cohen, the son of Martin, who fills a solid role in the Moroka Swallows midfield.
"If white youngsters are sufficiently dedicated and ambitious," he says, "there is no reason why they cannot make their mark in South African soccer.
"I have not got where I am because of any special influence from my dad," Cohen added.
"In fact, he never encouraged me to play soccer in preference to other sports. But, of course, I was brought up in a soccer environment and that was a factor.""It might not be race discrimination but it is blatant discrimination against soccer"