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Cover Story

I do hope one of us Africans wins the World Cup


BIG MEN, BIGGER STAGE: South African cricketer Makhaya Ntini (left) and Ethiopean runner Haile Gebrselassie at the World Cup draw

I can see it in their eyes. They're little black boys growing up in my village near East London, and all they talk about these days is soccer. Many of them are aspiring cricketers, learning the tricks of the trade from me, but all that's gone for now. It's the soccer fever that's gripped the country and if I ask them to do warm-ups, all they'll do is play soccer.

It's not that we haven't hosted big events before. But for us blacks in South Africa, the World Cup is a different ball game. Just look at the team and you'll know, there's not one white player in the team. Don't think I am celebrating that, I am just stating a basic fact.

Soccer brings all South Africans together, from that black boy in the street to those white hunks in the pub, but this one tournament probably means a little more to the black community. It all started in 1996, when we won the African Nations Cup. No one knew us as a footballing nation before that, but that team full of black players changed the course of our history. Nelson Mandela had been freed a few years back, but the country was still not the Rainbow Nation that he wanted it to be. But when we beat Tunisia in the final, the whole country celebrated together — the blacks, whites, coloured — the seven colours of the rainbow were there to see.

It was the dream of Nelson Mandela to bring all of us together and today, as we work to make the World Cup a success, the first person who comes to our mind is the great man himself. He taught us that war was not the way, and showed us how we could turn a dream into reality. And, of course, he did create an impression on the voters, which went a long way in South Africa getting the World Cup.

I remember I was touring Sri Lanka when the World Cup was awarded to us. We had missed out on the 2006 World Cup and it was like losing in the semifinal, so there was tension all around. When the news came that we would actually host the 2010 World Cup, there was absolute euphoria. For a moment, I felt why am I not at home? Why can't I celebrate this moment with my friends and family? I have played cricket for a while, taken nearly 400 Test wickets, but nothing could be compared with this one moment.

If that was one unbelievable moment, the next was one when they called me for the draw ceremony in Cape Town. When I first got a call for that ceremony, I thought somebody was pulling my leg. It took me quite a while to understand that they were actually serious, and I knew straight away that I had to be there in Cape Town on that day, come what may.

I know I am not the best cricketer ever to have played for South Africa, but it just didn't matter. I was there because I am the people's man and probably FIFA understood that as well. And I just can't forget that day, when the world watched me taking the balls out of the bucket — for a moment I felt like the king of the world. But like every other South African, I had a close eye on the group we were in. Mexico, Uruguay and France are difficult opponents and we'll really be happy to make it to the second round. Everyone in our country knows that we're no longer the team that we used to be when we won the African Nations Cup in 1996, but that won't stop them from cheering the boys.

And you just have to go to my village Mdingo in East Cape province, to know how they're preparing for the Big Day. We have electricity now and many had been saving for a while to buy a TV set before the World Cup. They know they can't afford to be at the ground, but that doesn't matter to them now, the TV has brought the world to their shabby drawing-rooms.

The best thing about the soccer World Cup is that even if the hosts lose, there's never a shortage of interest. We all have our favourites — I support Portugal and Brazil — but deep inside I really hope that an African team wins.

Look at the teams like Ivory Coast and Ghana. They can really generate the passion by the way they play and I'm sure that the black community in South Africa will be strongly behind them. And who knows, by the end of it all, the course of soccer history will change once again and we'll have the first African nation to win the World Cup of football.

Makhaya Ntini, South Africa's most successful coloured cricketer with 390 wickets in 101 Test matches, spoke to Dwaipayan Datta


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