By bringing over one of the world’s best teams to do battle against PSL champions Sundowns, South Africa is positioning itself to be among the elite of the footballing world.
A pumping FNB Stadium can rival almost any other arena in the world. And so it was on Wednesday night when more than 90 000 South Africans ignored the cold and descended on Nasrec. The hysteria was palpable as Barcelona FC walked out of the tunnel, past the statuette of Nelson Mandela and on to the pitch.
The Calabash shook every time Lionel Messi was shown on the big screen, tens of thousands baying for an appearance off the bench from the five-time player of the year. It was reminiscent of the American circus when David Beckham made his debut for Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.
That’s not deplorable in its own right but are we getting carried away with what this meant for our country?
“The country was in a buzz. A game of this magnitude has brought a lot to the African continent; people from Botswana, from Mozambique, from Swaziland, came for this game,” said Sundowns legend Daniel Mudau.
For Mambush, this would have been a dream occasion had he still been playing.
“Our players want to rub shoulders with the big guns. Who doesn’t want to mark Messi? [Patrice] Motsepe is someone who likes people. I don’t think he’s wasting money. Everyone is saying, ‘Without you, we couldn’t see Barcelona.’ ”
Mudau is alluding to the Brazilians’ owner, who spared no expense in bringing in the Blaugrana.
The endeavour unsurprisingly invoked polarised reactions. In one corner are those, such as ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula, who chant “God bless Motsepe”. In the other are those who would insist a football stakeholder so intimately involved in the nation’s favourite game has an obligation to spend his money more prudently.
For Kaizer Chiefs giant Doctor Khumalo, hosting the likes of Barcelona is a step towards hoisting South Africa among football’s elite.
“If you want to become the best, what is the best way?” he asked. “There is no cutting corners. How else would you bring the likes of Manchester United to South Africa? Or would you prefer the whole of South Africa to go to Spain to watch Barcelona play? Which one is cheaper?
“You can bring the team here and then more than 90 000 people can watch Barcelona. A lot of people are going to benefit, so we don’t have to be negative about it because we want to be like the rest of the world.”
Is this an optimal learning experience for a nation that has failed to find the back of the net regularly enough in recent years? No, said another Buccaneer legend, Jerry Sikhosana: “I don’t know why we want to make it a hullabaloo when it’s Barcelona. Yes, it’s the biggest team in the world but really for me it’s not a new thing. All the big teams from around Europe have come to play in South Africa and, ja, let’s continue doing that.
“We talk about development, we talk about boys that would emulate the likes of Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Luis Suarez — so let’s develop them,” he said. “If you bring those guys, bring them to come and do coaching clinics. These youngsters watch these players, they want to be like them.
“But by bringing these players, spending so much money only for these boys to watch them play from a distance, for me it doesn’t make any difference. Barcelona is at the FNB but it doesn’t do anything for the development of South African soccer. But this is Mr Motsepe’s money; we can’t say a lot about it.”
Sikhosana’s stance is not a popular one among football stakeholders. After all, the PSL, the South African Football Association and the national sports ministry were all interested in making this match come to fruition.
“Credit must go to Patrice Motsepe for bringing in Barcelona; they are my favourite team,” said former Orlando Pirates hardman Lucky Lekgwathi. “I talked to Daniel [Mudau] before the match and he said they were going to play this match for all South Africans, not themselves.
“For the Sundowns players, some of them are Barcelona fans. Just imagine playing against some of your favourite players? It’ll be a good experience for them.”
What everyone agrees on is those Masandawana players were given a lesson by their idols. Soumahoro Bangaly failed as a pupil in the first 20 minutes, twice culpable as a 2-0 scoreline was limply surrendered.
Ousmane Dembélé gave a riveting lecture on finishing for the first goal, cutting in on his left after intercepting the ball and meticulously curling it past Denis Onyango. The Brazilians failed to replicate that efficiency, too often floundering on the edge of the box and repeatedly trying to pass once inside the 18-yard area.
Hlompho Kekana of course did not hesitate to unleash his signature from-a-distance belter but Tebogo Langerman inexplicably passed in the 78th minute when faced with a clear shot.
The game itself offered nothing to complain about as it settled into an entertaining, if predictable, rhythm. Barça bossed proceedings in second gear but ultimately only broke through thanks to terrible defensive lapses. With the World Cup in eyeshot, we were never going to see merciless tackles in this one.
As great an occasion as it might have been, there was always going to be an unshakable sense of a festival. From the build-up to the unusual mid-week, close-season timing, this was no ordinary football match.
In truth, many who filled up Soccer City, christened as the home of football eight years ago, won’t be too bothered about the long-term benefits to the game. After all, we got to watch King Leo live on African soil. Even if only for 15 minutes.