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OLIVER HOLT: My Wish For Football Is To Put Our Aggression Away
It was late in the afternoon on the fifth day of the second Test at Newlands when a beautiful thing happened in the stand next to the Oaks Enclosure where the majority of the Barmy Army was watching England close in on a memorable victory against South Africa.
As the action continued, one of the soft drinks hawkers, an old man who had spent the game walking up and down the aisles of this part of the ground in the searing heat of the Cape Town afternoons with his satchel of Cokes and Sprites slung over his shoulder, started to say his goodbyes to the England fans with whom he had built a rapport.
He knew some of them by name. He went up and down the rows of seats, shaking hands and bidding them a safe journey home and telling them he would see them the next time. And then the Barmy Army rose as one and began applauding him. And the applause rose until there was a standing ovation and the old man was overcome with emotion as he left.
It was late in the fifth day of the second Test at Newlands when a beautiful thing happened
The Barmy Army are criticised by some. Some cricket traditionalists seem to regard them as a rather uncouth addition to the culture of the English game. Not me. I think they represent the best of English sports fans who travel abroad. They represent the joy of following your team and the idea of spreading goodwill wherever they go that seems to have been lost elsewhere.
To be in South Africa these past 10 days has been to experience a welcome reminder of the joy sport can bring. Sometimes, it feels as if that has been lost in English football. The angst that VAR has brought, the renewed issues with racism and the seething anger and enmity we take with us into domestic matches rob our football of much of what it should be about as a spectator experience.
The Barmy Army experience is free of that. It is a celebration of cricket. It is about getting behind the team. Soon after the old man had said his goodbyes, England skipper Joe Root stared over at the Oaks Enclosure and started whirling his arms in the air, exhorting the fans to raise the noise levels, acknowledging that his team would feed off their support.
And so a ritual ensued. An England fan in a T-shirt donned a blazer and walked down an aisle towards the outfield before turning to face the ranks of the Barmy Army. ‘What we need is a Barmy Army wicket,’ the man shouted, as he had shouted before. And then he began to orchestrate the . ‘We are the army, the Barmy, Barmy, Army,’ and so on. And it rose and rose. As they were still going through their routine, Ben Stokes had Dwaine Pretorius caught by Root at slip. The celebrations were uproarious, both on the field and in the Oaks Enclosure. It was the beginning of the end. Stokes would be unstoppable from then on. The magic had worked.
I think the Barmy Army represents the best of English sports supporters who travel abroad
It wasn’t just at Newlands where I remembered what it was like to feel the joy of sport in South Africa last week, though. On Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in captivity, there is a football pitch next to the cell blocks and, in the jail itself, there is a picture of the goalposts.
‘Political prisoners prioritised education but they loved the distraction of sport,’ an information notice said below the photograph. ‘Fixtures, leagues and codes were highly organised and scrupulously administered and a source of sheer delight to prisoners.’
Sport as escapism is nothing new, of course, but it felt particularly powerful out there on that island. Then, on Wednesday night, I went to the FNB Stadium on the edge of Soweto to join in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the Kaizer Chiefs, the country’s best-supported team. I got a coach to the stadium with some of the greats of the club, men like Doctor Khumalo and Banks Setlhodi, who got his nickname after Chiefs played against a team with England’s World Cup-winning keeper in nets.
Siphiwe Tshabalala, the player who scored the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup was there, too, as well as Lucky Stylianou, who became the first white player to join the side in 1978.
Siphiwe Tshabalala had scored the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup for South Africa
Even though he played for Chiefs in troubled times, signing for the club just two years after the bloody Soweto Uprising, Stylianou, who had trained as a lawyer but refused to practise because he despised the South African legal system, remembers his time at the Chiefs only with joy and fondness. Football was ahead of politics in South Africa then because blacks and whites played on the same pitch. The idea of separation - at least on the football pitch - was diluted.
As he sat on the coach going to the Chiefs’ match against Highlands Park, where a 3-0 victory was to take the club six points clear at the top of the South African Premier Soccer League, Stylianou recalled the times he was thrown into jail by the police because he had breached the Group Areas Act by staying in Soweto for too long, eating and drinking with his team-mates.
And in the second half, when Chiefs went two goals up and made the match secure, he watched from a private box high in the stand as the Chiefs fans celebrated in the stands, dancing and swaying, marching up and down the aisles in choreographed exultation.
Stylianou looked down and smiled. He thought back to the old days and how he had been inspired by his environment and the joy that he found in Soweto. ‘They treated me as one of their own,’ he said. ‘What amazed me at games was the humility and the happiness of people that had been so suppressed and the joy that football brought them.’
It is a pipe dream, I know, but if I could only have one wish for English football in 2020, it is that we could put some of our aggression and our angst away and learn to enjoy the game again.
FA stupid and greedy? You bet!
It took breathtaking levels of stupidity and greed for the FA even to have considered selling streaming rights for the FA Cup to a cabal of betting companies.
It took breathtaking levels of stupidity from the FA to have considered selling streaming rights
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I get that the station is obsessed with capturing the under 35s but by cutting itself loose of so many of its best presenters, it risks losing every other listener in the process.
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