Atlanta’s World Cup: Proud time for South Africa
Although he played soccer as a youngster in South Africa, Grant Colliston parlayed his excellence in another sport to take him abroad, and eventually, to Atlanta.
Like many white South Africans, Colliston was immersed in the game and culture of rugby as a youth, first in Johannesburg, and then to Cape Town.
But as the World Cup opened in his homeland last Friday, he was donned in a green South Africa jersey at Fadó Atlanta, which was packed with equal parts cheering on the Bafana Bafana and El Tricolor of Mexico.
“A lot of white kids played soccer, but it’s their preferred game,” Colliston said of black South Africans, who make up the entire Bafana Bafana squad that played to a 1-1 draw with Mexico.
Colliston left South Africa for England and eventually the U.S. to play semiprofessional rugby, landing here six years ago to compete with the Atlanta Old White club.
Now retired from playing and doing mobile marketing in the Atlanta regional office PowerAde, Colliston, 31, thinks this World Cup could be just as significant — if not more so — than when South Africa played host to and won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, its first major international sporting event following the end of apartheid.
“I think so,” Colliston said. “Back then, a lot of black people didn’t really watch that, but when South Africa got to the final, that changed a bit.”
While that tournament is being credited with helping South Africa begin the long reconciliation process, new hopes are being placed on South Africa’s World Cup hosting role to help develop a sport that stagnated under deep racial divisions. South Africa’s first fully professional soccer league didn’t kick off until 1992, and only a handful of current members of Bafana Bafana – most notably, Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar — are featuring in major European club.
A stirring World Cup-opening goal was scored by Siphiwe Tshabalala of the Soweto-based Kaizer Chiefs, one of South Africa’s most famous soccer clubs that was founded by and named after Kaizer Motaung, the club’s president, who played for the Atlanta Chiefs’ inaugural North American Soccer League championship team in 1968.
South Africa takes the field on Wednesday against Uruguay amid a backdrop of labor troubles that surfaced as the tournament got underway. Some World Cup stewards staged protests in Durban, complaining of low wages, and the country’s reputation for crime problems surfaced before the opener, when several Chinese journalists were mugged in Johannesburg.
“There’s been a lot of talk about ‘Can they do it? Can they put this on?” Colliston said about doubts over South Africa’s ability to stage the world’s biggest sporting event without too many serious hitches.
But he said a visit to South Africa in February inspired his confidence that the World Cup will be memorable for all the right reasons. Indeed, Colliston asserted, although he’s now a permanent resident here and soon will obtain an American passport, the pride he has for the land of his birth has never been stronger.
“I’m almost a U.S. citizen now, but I’ll always be a South African.”