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Historic 1974 game between all-white and all-black soccer teams in South Africa was 'catalyst for change'

Former Tampa Bay Rowdies star Steve Wegerle remembers the game as if it were yesterday and not a lifetime ago in an era his homeland would just as soon forget.

"It was historic," he said.

On April 20, 1974, he was about to play in the culminating match of the first official fully "multinational" soccer tournament in South Africa; an all-white team would meet an all-black team, the rarest of pairings in a nation then governed by a set of racially repressive policies — apartheid.

"It took me a while to fully understand the meaning of that game," said Wegerle, a longtime Tampa resident.

"It was the catalyst for change," added an emotional Neill Roberts, who played alongside Wegerle in the event, later starred with the Rowdies in the heyday of the North American Soccer League and has been a fixture in this community ever since.

After years of internal turbulence and external condemnation (which resulted in athletic banishment from international events), South Africa ended apartheid in the early 1990s. That dramatic societal shift has paved the way for the country to host soccer's grandest event, the World Cup, which begins Friday with South Africa's national team meeting Mexico.

It's a time for South Africans to gush with pride.

It's a time for South Africans to appreciate a moment 36 years ago.

"That game changed the whole of South Africa," said Jomo Sono, one of the stars for the all-black team who later came to America to play for the New York Cosmos. "When it comes to sports, it was as important as Mr. (Nelson) Mandela being released from prison."

• • •

For South Africa, the so-called Embassy Multi-National Series in 1974 was seen as a bold move, at home and abroad. Teams from the four races that apartheid kept separate and on decidedly unequal footing were assembled for a tournament, the first of its kind.

"Growing up, I remember my mom and saying, 'Things are going to change. It's inevitable. Things are going to change,' " said Roberts, 56, who will be going to South Africa to see family and some World Cup games. "It was a brave attempt to signal to the world, if there's a way we can change, it's via soccer."

The finale created the largest buzz.

Especially among blacks.

Not only was soccer the No. 1 sport for blacks in South Africa (the white population loved rugby first and foremost), the game gave black players the chance to strike at the core tenet of apartheid — that blacks were inferior in all aspects of life.

"It was very important for us in the sense we were carrying the hopes of the millions of black people," said Sono, 54, a prominent businessman and accomplished soccer coach and talent scout in his homeland as well as a team owner. "We had to show the world that a black person could play football. But it was very important also to show the world, there's nothing wrong with black and whites playing together."

• • •

Rand Stadium was one of the oldest sports venues in Johannesburg. It could hold about 30,000 fans. But on that night in 1974, fans poured in like never before and pushed the estimated predominately black crowd to nearly twice capacity.

"It was the most electric atmosphere I'd ever played in front of," Wegerle said. "Ever."

The fans whistled and stomped their feet nonstop, mostly in support of the black team that was led by Sono, nicknamed the "Black Prince," as well as Patrick "Ace" Ntsoelengoe and Shakes Mashaba, all of whom had breathtaking skill with the ball at their feet.

Though this game showcased the brilliance of white and black players alike, it was marred by some controversial officiating. A goal by the Black XI just moments before halftime was nullified, and that brought a cascade of rocks, bottles and fruits from the stands, creating a "scary" situation, Roberts said. The black team was so angry about the call, the players contemplated not returning to the field for the second half.

They did, after a delay, but the White XI scored twice, the clincher by Roberts, for a 2-0 win.

But the beginning of a story in a Durban newspaper the next day presciently proclaimed a different winner:

ONE BIG STEP for South Africa and One giant leap for Black soccer.

• • •

Shortly after that match, the first multiracial team, which included Roberts, Wegerle, Sono and five other blacks, was selected to represent South Africa in a planned home-and-home exhibition against Australia's national team.

"There was excitement for every black person and every white person," Sono said of the prospects of those games, the first of which would be in July in South Africa as the Aussies left Germany and the World Cup. "We were united."

"If there was going to be something that initiated a change," added Roberts, whose eyes welled with emotion as he flipped through a scrapbook his mother had put together for him that included clippings from the game, "it would have been that South African team."

But FIFA, soccer's world governing body, nixed the games.

As Roberts and others of the day lament, South Africa remained in the "wilderness," unable to represent their country in an international soccer event of any kind.

"I call it the jersey that never was," said Derek Smethurst, who excelled in England in the late 1960s and early 1970s before coming to the United States and becoming a household name in the Tampa Bay area along with fellow Rowdies from South Africa including Wegerle, Roberts and Mike Connell. "An entire generation of soccer players disappeared because of the politics of the day. Just disappeared."

That's why, for some, the site for this World Cup brings a mix of excitement and disappointment — disappointment about the opportunity lost for so many South African athletes of all races.

Sono, however, said he finds solace in the simple fact that he could play abroad and not be imprisoned. He also said he feels good that he could be part of laying a new "foundation" for the future.

By the mid 1980s, soccer leagues in South Africa became integrated. In 1994, a new constitution was crafted and free elections were held for the first time with Mandela historically assuming the presidency. A true South African national soccer team, the Bafana Bafana (The Boys), made its first World Cup appearance in 1998 in France and qualified again for the 2002 Cup.

Roberts, for one, sees that game 36 years ago as soccer's answer to the recent movie Invictus, which dealt with South Africa's rugby team helping unify and heal a nation's psyche by hosting and winning the 1995 rugby World Cup.

"From then on," Wegerle said, "things have gone forward."

Echoed Sono: "That game opened the door for all South Africa."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

Historic 1974 game between all-white and all-black soccer teams in South Africa was 'catalyst for change' 06/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 12:34pm]

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