The biggest hockey tournament ever to visit this country is happening this week and next at the Wits Astro in Johannesburg. South Africa’s men’s and women’s squads are in action and crowds have been plentiful in their support.
The men lost 2-0 to Ireland on Sunday night, and the women began the previous day with a 0-0 result against India. On Wednesday, the women came face to face with Argentina and to put that into perspective, it was almost like Bafana Bafana running out against Lionel Messi and company.
Appropriately, then, there was a “Shabba” moment two minutes before half time, when Bernie Coston latched on to a pass from Candice Manuel to give the home side an unlikely lead.
Coston is a professional chiropractor at Milpark Mediclinic and a part-time hockey player who has had to take time off work to play in the World League semifinals. “I’m lucky that I have a very supportive boss,” she says, “who allows me time off work. There’s a lot of stress because my income basically depends on the amount of people I see.”
It is a fact of life for elite players in this country that they have to pay to represent the national side. South Africa’s reserve goalkeeper for the men’s side, Gowan Jones, could not persuade his employer of the import of this tournament and so is absent this week.
It is rather different for teams such as Argentina, Germany, Belgium and England, who enjoy state support and derive a healthy living from playing the game they love. Coston says that the team had a discussion in January about the difficulty of being amateurs in a professional world.
She said: “We did a bit of soul-searching and we decided to take on the year. We didn’t go to the Rio Olympics, so we had more time to prepare. We said: ‘Let’s take off the labels. We don’t care if we’re 13th in the world and you’re number one; it’s about what happens on the pitch.’ And I think we did show that tonight.”
Under the gun for the first quarter, the South Africans slowly settled and were good value for their half-time lead. The match changed in the 41st minute when Argentina converted a penalty stroke, which was driven home by set-piece specialist Noel Barrionuevo.
In the final quarter, the visibly tiring home side conceded two field goals to lose 3-1. But they showed enough to suggest they should make it through to next week’s quarterfinals, and in the knockout stages anything is possible. The men have a tougher ask and will probably have to beat African rivals Egypt to progress.