Color Bind

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We carried blacks, all South African blacks, on our shoulders that night. You can't imagine how heavy that was.

--Patrick Ntsoelengoe, Black XI soccer player

*

Back then, Jomo Sono was not allowed into the posh Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein. Certainly not to play soccer, and certainly not after dark. After all, South Africa's policy of apartheid was about keeping the races as separate and unequal as possible, even for the best black athletes of a generation.

Yet on the night of April 20, 1974, Sono and the rest of the Black XI soccer stars stepped onto the field at Rand Stadium to play the White XI in a historic game that literally pitted the races against each other, turning soccer into a bizarre referendum on racism.

An overflow crowd estimated at more than 55,000 jammed into the tiny stadium--whites on one side, blacks on the other, with barbed wire in between--and armed security guards patrolled the field. The atmosphere fairly crackled.

But as much as that game angered the blacks, confused the whites, or patronized the other races, many believe it might have also hastened the end of apartheid.

"That game changed everything," said Sono, who went on to play for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League and later served as coach of the South African national team. "It was humiliating, it was frustrating, it was so many terrible emotions for me. As black men, we couldn't represent our country properly in international football, and this was no substitute. But it was a steppingstone that allowed change to happen."

Now, with South Africa battling Brazil, England, Germany and Morocco for the right to host the 2006 World Cup--a decision that will be announced Thursday in Zurich, Switzerland--it is remarkable how far soccer has come in so short a time. Twenty-six years after skin color determined lineups, those same players and coaches are the power brokers as South Africa lobbies to host the sport's crown jewel.

Clive Barker, a respected white coach, said soccer was always more than a game, especially in 1974.

"In those days, football was the only way to legally protest against apartheid," he said. "Football broke down barriers and brought changes that organizations like the ANC [African National Congress] could only talk about underground. In effect, we were telling the government to get rid of the color barriers. Soccer did that, not politics."

The black-white match was the final of a strange and twisted tournament called the Embassy Multi-National Series, the first official competition to include teams from each of South Africa's apartheid-era races: white, black, colored and Indian.

If a tournament drawn along racial lines seems dubious now, factor in the tension wrought by apartheid in the mid-1970s. Blacks were forcibly being herded by the millions into arid "homelands," with passbooks and strict curfews designed to keep them out of white neighborhoods. Coloreds and Indians were decidedly second-class citizens, and tottering colonial governments in neighboring Angola and Rhodesia and Mozambique had ratcheted white fear in South Africa up to frenzied levels.

*

If South Africa must choose between being poor and white or rich and multiracial, then it must rather choose to be white.

--Hendrik Verwoerd,

former South Africa prime minister

*

Sports, like every other aspect of apartheid-era life in South Africa, was deeply troubled. The country's turbulent soccer leagues were divided along color lines, and clubs were forbidden to sign players of different races.

In 1973, white fans were turned away by police when they tried to attend an exhibition match between a black all-star team and a touring British side in Soweto, while attempts at staging games between South Africa's top black and white clubs in neighboring countries like Botswana and Swaziland were quashed by FIFA, soccer's governing body.

Given that, why provide the races equal footing on the soccer field? Surely the tournament--conceived by Piet Koornhof, South Africa's minister of sport, and backed by old-guard sports officials and corporations--risked violence and chaos, especially if the White XI were to lose to the so-called inferior races. Were the whites that certain of victory?

Perhaps. But some believe the motivation was more devious than that. Reporter Sy Lerman covered the series for South Africa's leading paper, the Rand Daily Mail, and questions whether the white government and sports officials even cared if their team won.

"Soccer was perceived as the sport of the blacks back then, and I got the feeling that the white government actually wanted the blacks to win," Lerman said. "If the blacks beat the whites, it would deflect attention away from the real problems of apartheid. They could use soccer to pander to the blacks, whereas the whites losing to the blacks in soccer wasn't viewed as that important."

The government also made it clear the blacks would take their best shot. While many of the top players tried to protest by skipping the tournament, such holdouts did not last long. When Patrick "Ace" Ntsoelengoe went to renew his visa so he could return to the U.S. and play in the NASL, for instance, his application was denied.

"They told me I was required to stay and play," he said. "I had no choice."

The White XI, meanwhile, was coming along nicely. Drawn predominantly from top clubs such as Arcadia Shepherds and Highlands Park, the team featured names familiar to NASL fans--Neil Roberts, Stuart Lilley, Martin Cohen and the Wegerle brothers, Steve and Geoff--and made up for what it lacked in individual flair with crisp discipline and resolve. In fact, not a single white player interviewed for this article can remember debating whether or not to play, even though most admit they'd never actually seen any of the blacks play.

"OK, it was awkward, playing for your race," said Cohen, who later played for the Los Angeles Aztecs. "But I regarded myself as a professional--we all were--and this was about playing a game. It was about winning a game. It was about playing football."

*

Blacks had it very, very hard in South Africa, especially off the soccer field. Maybe we were equal, in a way, on the field, but you knew it was temporary.

--Steve Wegerle,

White XI player

*

No one knows how many fans jammed into Rand Stadium that night. The capacity was listed at 32,000, but estimates ran higher, to 50,000 or 60,000, especially with so many people sitting in the aisles and standing in the exits.

Barker said the atmosphere was electric.

"The only time I ever felt excitement and anticipation like that was on Nelson Mandela's inauguration day in 1994," he said.

The Black XI easily was the greatest collection of individual stars on the continent at that time, led by the twin terrors, Sono and Ntsoelengoe. Yet for all the talent--and the hysterical predictions in the black press of a lopsided win--many black players say they felt uneasy heading into the game.

"The pressure to win was bad enough," Ntsoelengoe said. "But when I saw our team, the way we had been playing, I knew we had it here"--he tapped his chest, then tapped his temple--"but I didn't know if we had it here."

Nevertheless, the Black XI wasted little time in taking control, using its juking style to run rings around the whites. Each fake brought roars from the crowd, each cross-over prompted laughter and catcalls.

Then, two minutes before halftime, Ntsoelengoe stole the ball from White XI defender Hennie Joubert and slotted a pass through the defense toward Macdonald Skosana, streaking down the wing. Skosana's shot ripped into the net for a goal--a goal, Lerman wrote, that "black South Africans had waited for so long that it must have seemed like a lifetime"--sparking wild celebrations in the stands.

But as the Black XI players turned somersaults and danced on the field, referee Wally Turner, who was white, ran to confer with his linesman, nodded, and nullified the goal. Skosana was ruled offside. And now the joy turned to anger as bottles and rocks and cans rained down onto the field. Shakes Mashaba, with tears of rage running down his cheeks, grabbed the ball and kicked it into the crowd--earning a yellow card--and the boos were deafening.

Fearing a riot, Turner immediately whistled for halftime and raced off the field, but he was caught and jostled by several black players in the tunnel. They swore at him and some called him a cheat and a racist. Then the Black XI closed its locker room door and refused to come out.

*

Guys in the locker room kept talking and saying, "We can't win. They won't let us win."

--Jomo Sono,

Black XI player

*

After a delay of almost 25 minutes--during which the Black XI repeatedly threatened to forfeit,--the second half resumed amid more boos and insults. But something had changed. The Black XI no longer played with passion or spark, and suddenly the whites were in charge. And when the White XI was awarded a dubious free kick after only two minutes, Cohen stepped up and hammered a shot that swerved past the defensive wall into the net for a 1-0 lead.

"What began to show was our discipline," said Steve Wegerle. "There was no question back then that some of the black forwards and midfielders were incredibly skillful, but they needed 11 separate balls to play effectively. They each tried to do their own thing. But we were well drilled. We did what we had to do as a team."

By the time Roberts scored the second White XI goal, the black players and their fans were demoralized beyond repair. There were no riots or skirmishes at the final whistle. The players exchanged jerseys in a perfunctory manner and left the field. Several black players cried openly.

Yet as the Black XI filed past Koornhof on the reviewing stand to receive their runners-up medals, Mashaba's anger flared again.

"When I went to shake his hand, he leaned over to me and said, 'You're not far away,' " Mashaba said. "He was telling me there was still a gap between us, between black and white. After what we'd been through, he was telling me we still weren't equal."

*

Something had to happen. That game made it impossible to suppress people for the rest of their lives."

--Martin Cohen,

White XI player

*

Desegregation came quickly to South African soccer, far faster than it did to the rest of the country. The Multi-National Series spurred an annual club competition among the best black, white, colored and Indian teams beginning in 1975, and South Africa's first multiracial "national" team was formed that same year.

By the mid-1980s, South African soccer was fully integrated.

But even though many of the principals in that tournament now hold tremendous clout--Sono owns his own team, Jomo Cosmos, and is an ambassador for the World Cup bid; Mashaba is South Africa's Olympic coach; Barker coached South Africa to the World Cup; Steve Wegerle is a top youth coach in the U.S., and Ntsoelengoe runs a successful youth development program in Johannesburg--there are scars that won't heal.

"I'll never get over the anger," Ntsoelengoe said. "Some of the young players I coach now don't know who I was, so their parents tell them about me. But they only say I was good--they don't tell them that was all I had. The only place a black man could prove himself in those days was on the field of play. But I feel like we never really got the chance."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WORLD CUP 2006 BIDS

Five countries are vying for bid, which will be announced Thursday:

* BRAZIL

* ENGLAND

* GERMANY

* MOROCCO

* SOUTH AFRICA

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