I grew up about 5km from Loftus Versfeld stadium and went to high school right next door to it. But until this last Saturday, I’d never been to any kind of game at there- why not?
I have a few ideas. For one, I don’t think I’ve ever really been that interested in rugby or soccer (or I didn’t think I was). Actually, I think I just didn’t make the effort to go, which kind of feels ridiculous seeing that it was so close by. It’s like I actively made an effort not to go.
This became even more apparent when I told my sister that I was going, and had never been to Loftus Versfeld before. Her exact response, verbatim, was “No man really?”.
Thankfully, my best friend Casey, who also went to the same high school, had also never been to a rugby or Springbok game there either, so it was awesome to share this first time experience with her too.
(Especially since her husband also managed to get us tickets through his job at Unilever- thanks Rich!).
And, despite any kind of preconceived ideas about sporting events that I might have had, overall, it was really fun, and surprisingly meaningful. So much so that I wanted to share some thoughts I had about it here.
Realisations from My First Experience of Watching Springbok Rugby at Loftus Versfeld
It’s actually inspiring to go and watch your national team play live
Apparently, stadiums all over the country are struggling to fill the stands at the moment. I definitely think this has something to do with all the depressing newspaper signboards that I drive past everyday and try not to read. But also, I think that most people are just happier to watch the game in the comfort of their own home, or with their friends at a bar.
In fact, as we arrived into the closed-off street chaos at the University Road intersection at about about 16:30, and got out of the Uber, we met a guy who was already trying to go home.
“Gaan jy huis toe”? I asked in Afrikaans, surprised, wondering why he’d make all the effort to come here and then leave. He confirmed that for him, it’s always better to watch the game on a big screen.
As we left him, and walked under the bridge and in towards the stadium from the entrance in Lynnwood Road, it all became clear why you’d choose to make the effort to come to the stadium though.
Men outside waving flags, shouting and selling paraphernalia from trestle tables. The smell of boerewors on a braai. A voice on a microphone promoting an FNB competition to win a ticket to the World Cup in Japan on the right. In summary, just a lot of positive energy, perfectly timed with the arrival of the Gwijo Squad, singing and dancing while carrying signs that said “help us get to Japan”.
I think I convinced myself that I found these kind of events overwhelming. But while walking around the stadium trying to find our entrance, and looking up at the people drinking and chatting on the outside-facing box balconies, I felt more excited than anything else.
Feeling like a South African feels good
It’s easy to feel kak about South Africa on a daily basis, for many reasons, so many that it would be impossible to list them all here. Many of these are also linked to the unfortunate reality of global economics, which makes it even more difficult to stay optimistic sometimes, about anything.
But when I sat down on the light blue seats with an almost level view of the pitch, and looked across from me at the stands filling up and the sunset falling over the seats on the opposite side (and I knew I was about to eat a boerewors roll), I forgot about all of that.
I was too busy taking it all in. The mix of different people around me, the friends, the families, the number of men getting photos taken of them with their sons smiling with the field in the background. When they sat down in front of me I saw that at least one of these men had a personalised rugby jersey.
Then there was the friendly, stylish man with the black, round Oliver Peoples style glasses and his wife and daughters, and the group of friends behind me who helped me identify the very catchy kwaito song that was playing (with the lyrics “in the meantime” the only words I could understand).
Then there was the colourful Ndlovu Youth Choir in front of us. I’d seen them singing “My African Dream” in front of Simon Cowell on YouTube, and there they were again, singing the exact same song on the pitch.
I between all of this, at varying intervals that I lost track of, there were fireworks. And the slight heat from some unexpected, but awesome, pyrotechnics. Followed by the commentator starting to get everyone fired up.
And I got totally sucked in
After cheering the Argentinian team on, and listening to their national anthem, politely, the South African team then came on in a puff of green smoke and Impi started to play, which definitely stirred up some emotions (and not just because I was thinking of Johnny Clegg).
When the national anthem came on, I felt even more emotional, smiling to myself as I noticed the differing levels of emphasis on certain parts of the songs in the crowd, until the last part (which is always reassuring).
I think I’d always dismissed these big group experiences as being a bit lame, or cheesy AF, but I have to admit, allowing myself to let go and get involved was really fun.
And then the reality of being at a big event kicked in
At some point all of us realised that no one around us was drinking, and that we would need to go somewhere else to drink a beer.
(Which, by the way, totally killed my very simple dream of drinking a beer and eating a boerewors roll and watching a Springbok rugby game, all at the same time).
So just before half time, Casey and I decided to leave Richard and his friend Ian in the stands to go and drink a beer at Castle Corner.
While at the bar, I noticed a guy next to me reaching over me on my left hand side with a R50 note. In hindsight, his approach to getting the lady behind the bar’s attention was remarkably ineffective, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Even when he did it a second time, I just felt annoyed. All of this happened within about 30 seconds to a minute, the short amount of time it takes to place an order, get two cans of Castle Light, pay for them, click them open and walk away.
After taking our first sips, Casey and I leant against the brick wall on the outside of the bar, a few metres away from the fence (?), and reflected on the fact that we were right next to our high school, Pretoria High School for Girls, which I remember hearing had sold off some land to build Loftus Versfeld a long time ago.
In addition to reminiscing about various high school experiences, both shameful and hilarious, we wondered if the school still made money from charging people to park in the area of open land next the the stadium that they still own, which we always referred to as “The Pines”, because of the trees that grew around it.
And then it hit me
It was around about this point in the conversation, and about halfway through the increasing accumulation of an aluminium-tinged beer taste in my mouth that I reached into my jacket pockets and realised that my phone wasn’t in either of them.
It takes some effort to remember the greater good
At that point, it was clearly halftime judging by the amount of people that were starting to stream into the fenced-off bar area, so it was definitely time to leave.
(But not before having to chug the rest of my now slightly warm, metallic-tinged beer on the way out, since I couldn’t take the beer past the fence).
Instead of feeling angry, I just felt defeated. Not even so much because of the insecurity that comes with living alone and not having a phone, but of all the upcoming missions. Having to let everyone know, get a SIM swap and go to the police station, wait for a case number, and then file an insurance claim.
I tried really hard not to be a downer for the rest of the game, which was tough, especially when the Argentinians scored that try towards the end. But just like I was cheated out of my phone at Loftus Versfeld’s Castle Corner, it turns out that we were also cheated out of a tackle, so we won!
While I don’t think it was a particularly spectacular game, the fact that we won did help to cheer me up. That, and when a very excited fan, while looking down at me from the seats as we made our way out of the stadium asked me to take a picture of him and his friends smiling and posing with a South African banner.
(In fact, the experience was so uplifting that a part of me almost thought he was tapping me on the shoulder to tell me he’d found my phone. Which Apple later told me had spent some time in a restaurant down the street).
And then I learnt something about the All Blacks
On the way into Loftus Versfeld, Ian was telling me about his Industrial Psychology PhD research into the All Blacks rugby team and how support for that national team is just baked into New Zealand society. I definitely think it has a lot to do with the hormonal effects of the haka (on both those doing it and those around them), but I also think it’s a decision that everyone is actively encouraged to make. A decision to be proud.
Ian also mentioned that he was about to write a LinkedIn post about why he thinks the South African team could win the World Cup in Japan, with the most historically diverse team on record. However, he also mentioned that the one reason he thinks they wouldn’t win is because the country isn’t behind them.
It took a bit of feeling sorry for myself, alone at home on a Saturday night after the game, with no phone, but I thought a lot about what he said. And I had a realisation.
And here it is
Isn’t it amazing that even with everything that is happening, with all the history, bad news, gloom, and iPhone thievery, that South Africans from all walks of life come together at a place like Loftus Versfeld and make the time to watch the national team, without anyone having to erect a very high barbed wire fence around the perimeter of the field (like they apparently need to do in Argentina).
Maybe it’s just me but that makes me feel quite proud too.
Do you go and watch the Springboks regularly, or your national team? I’d love to hear more about your experience(s) in the comments below!