When I was a small kid growing up in Greystones, seventeen miles south of Dublin, my Welsh grandparents lived with us. I worshipped them.
Grampa’s dad had died in a coal mining accident when he was a boy and, although very bright, he had never had the chance to go to university. He had qualified as a school teacher through a scheme that allowed pupils to do so but it meant he could never teach at the grammar schools. He always taught in lesser institutions and had pupils who were destined for trades rather than academic careers. Although a big rugby fan, he had played soccer for Aberfan, the village that suffered the dreadful mining accident in the sixties when rain caused the tip to move and it engulfed a school and killed all the kids. I remember his devastation on hearing the news. In the First World War he joined the Medical Corps and was mentioned in dispatches. I remember going to the epic movie “ Lawrence of Arabia” with him and he revealed that he had been in Aden at the same time as the legend but had never met him. My mother remembers that at one stage Gramps said he had spent time living in the desert with the Arabs and all his life he remained hugely impressed with them. Sadly the Medical Corps records of the First World War were bombed in the second and it is impossible to research his life more thoroughly. He died when I was twelve.
When I was very little Grampa took me on a bus to Donnybrook to watch a rugby match. I didn’t really want to go but would do anything for him so went along. He explained that Bective Rangers were playing against Old Belvedere and the great Tony O’Reilly was guesting for the latter, his old club before he had gone off to make his billions in business. O’Reilly had starred for both the 1955 and 1959 Lions and remains their record try scorer. Such was his status in the game that Grampa wanted me to be able to say I saw the great man play. In the heel of the hunt O’Reilly cried off and I cried, such was my level by the time we arrived, of Grampa-inspired excitement. My life long love of the game came from my grandfather, Bob Richards.
On Wednesday I was driving through Sandton and saw an army of police motorbikes, squad cars and 4x4s. “Bloody blue light brigade for bloody politicians” thought I with disdain. Then it came close and I realised there was a luxury coach at the centre of the convoy and it was the Barcelona team. I opened my window and waved. I swear three players waved back. Jennie, my wife, rolled her eyes when I told her, excitedly.
I didn’t go to the game. How pathetic for the whole country to get so worked up for a friendly. Such a waste of money for Patrice to spend so much when our soccer is at such a low point. Fan violence, empty stadiums and non-qualification on a regular basis for continental and world competitions is where we are. Between Irvin and Danny there seems to be a personal feud and, of course, the latter is accused of dreadful behaviour by a respected singer and ex-politician. With so much wrong with our soccer what on earth are we doing buying in Barcelona? Mind you, I did watch on television. Sundowns were outclassed and lucky to escape with a 3-1 defeat. It was an entertaining sideshow and nothing more. At least Soccer City was almost full.
On Friday I met a soccer fan by chance. He had been a schoolteacher but changed career and now thoroughly enjoys selling luxury cars. He is a total professional and very good at his job. In 2010, he had met a visiting American fan here for the World Cup and they had become firm friends. They made a pact about getting together in 2018. Soon he is off to Moscow to meet his buddy and he cannot wait.
We chatted about cars and soccer and I was about to launch into a criticism of the Barcelona fiasco when he told me he had been there. “Yes, it had been a friendly, and yes, Barcelona had strolled to an easy victory” he admitted. Then he said something that struck home. He said that with fifteen minutes to go the whole exercise metamorphosed into something extraordinary and wonderful. He said that there is nothing in life that compares to being in the presence of true genius. He said that when Lionel Messi took to the pitch the whole stadium erupted and he knew that everyone there, including himself, would remember the experience forever. That moment and the last few minutes were why Wednesday was so important. As he waxed lyrical a light went on in my head.
I felt ashamed. I remembered a little kid crying because he never saw the great AJF O’ Reilly play in the flesh. The same kid became a rugby nut because of a beloved old man. I remembered a sixty two year old retired man waving to a football team bus and getting such a thrill when a few waved back. I remembered meeting the great Madiba and experiencing the incredible effect he had on all he met. I thought of the Royal Wedding and how millions of people are going to extraordinary measures just to say they were there. People will mock them and cynics will ridicule it all – but they won’t care.
Life for many people is tough and unfair. Every so often moments of magic come along and make it bearable. Wednesday was such a moment. How many kids will be inspired to pursue excellence because they saw what a thirteen year old tiny kid from a poor family in Argentina could achieve? How many adults got a bolt of magic energy that made them get up the next day and face a tough world with smiles on their faces? Maybe, unlike after 2010, our administrators will even be inspired to redouble efforts to get our soccer back where it should be, at a world class level.
Well done Patrice Motsepe. Providing moments of magic in the presence of true genius are always worth providing. Thank you.