Friday, 9 April 2010

Matthew Booth: the unexpected face of South Africa 2010

JUST been on 702 radio in South Africa countering the madness of the Daily Star front page on Monday which talked about the 'blood bath' facing England fans at the World Cup.

The British tabloid, which normally leads on celebrity gossip, has stirred things up in South Africa, where a pdf of their coverage is flying around the internet. Hopefully this is a more positive perspective on what awaits...

MATTHEW BOOTH’S story is the perfect pick-me-up in a week when pre-World Cup South Africa is struggling to deal with the murder of Afrikaner extremist Eugene Terreblanche.

Booth is not one of football’s biggest names – yet – but in the Rainbow Nation, the only white man in the squad walks on turbulent water.

At 33, the shaven-headed 6ft 5in defender from Fish Hoek near Cape Town is rapidly becoming the face of Bafana Bafana (that’s Zulu for The Boys, The Boys), a pale face in a game which gave disenfranchised blacks a rare voice until the overnight demolition of Apartheid in 1994.

During the World Cup – with South Africa kicking off against Mexico at Soccer City on June 11 – Booth will be adding to the 24 caps earned since his debut in 1999. Named in coach Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 25-man squad for next week’s preparatory camp in Germany last night, he admits: “This has come a little bit late in my career. But if I can play a part in a World Cup on home soil, I will die happy.”

The struggling hosts have just returned from an encouraging tour of Parreira’s homeland Brazil – without Premier League stars Steve Pienaar and Benni McCarthy – and Booth said: “The lads played very well. We worked on keeping our shape and were dangerous up front. The coaching staff seems to be more than happy with our progress.

Married to Sonia, a black model from Soweto, Booth has been highlighted by this month’s Sports Illustrated magazine in the US as “The New Face of a Nation”. He was the local player picked to share the stage with Charlize Theron and David Beckham when the World Cup draw glittered on our television screens in early December. He is continually mobbed in the streets of his homeland, adding: “A lot more white guys are coming up and wishing me luck for the World Cup.”

His face – and that of his wife and two children, Noah and Nathan – dominates the pre-tournament advertising campaigns for mobile phones and sports drinks.

Under Apartheid, white players in South Africa struggled to gain the appreciation of the black crowds at a time when football, boxing and jazz were perhaps the only level playing fields for the majority of South Africans.

When he plays, it sounds like the Vuvuzela-blowing South Africans are booing their rugged centre-back. The Spanish papers reported as much when covering the Confederations Cup at Ellis Park last year. They’re not. As wife Sonia Pule, from Pimville in Soweto explains: "They thought it was a racist thing. But they’re just shouting his name.: Booooooth! I just laughed. But part of me wanted to say, 'They're not booing him. He's my husband, trust me, I know!'

Sonia, 31, a former Miss South Africa finalist, dubs herself "a township girl from Soweto” Her father, Themba, died when Sonia was a month old, and she was raised in a two-bedroom house with 16 other family members. She used her obvious assets to improve life for a one-parent family of 16 in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the world, winning a kettle, a toaster and a TV from beauty pageants. She recalls: "You make it work. That was my life for 18 years."

The contrast couldn’t be more vivid. Booth’s middle-class upbringing in Cape Town started 800 miles south in Fish Hoek, where alcohol is prohibited. He went to an all-white school, as decreed by the government of the day. He grins: “Soccer wasn’t an option, even though it’s always been the most popular sport in the country. I played rugby, cricket, tennis.

“But my dad Paul was involved at Fish Hoek AFC, an amateur soccer club. It was a cultural and racial melting pot. I was part of that from a young age, which I'm very grateful for."

So how did they meet? Booth, who started out playing for local club Cape Town Spurs in 1994, captained the South African Olympic squad at Sydney in 2000, a year after winning his first cap for Bafana Bafana.

By then he had moved to Mamelodi Sundowns, a bigger club near Pretoria. Booth was in the car when one of his team-mates went to pick up his daughter. The babysitter was stunning and just beginning her modelling career. After seeing each other as part of the post-game crowd, he finally plucked up the courage to cross the still-vivid colour line – inter-racial sex was outlawed under Apartheid – and asked Sonia out.

She recalls: "I realized he's not your average pompous soccer player. He's actually quite cool."

Sonia’s career soon took off. She was chosen to be part of the Face of Africa campaign and left for New York City in 2000. Matthew went the other way. After suffering a serious knee injury two weeks before the 2002 World Cup, he moved to Russia, where he spent six years with Rostov and Samara.

Sonia stayed in South Africa to study for a business degree but their long-distance relationship survived the air miles and their first son, Nathan Katlego, was born in 2004. They married two years later and Sonia joined Matthew in Samara in 2007 before the birth of their second son, Noah Neo a year later.

Booth was ignored by South Africa’s various coaches throughout his stay in Russia, but he returned to Sundowns last year to force himself back into international recognition for the side ranked 88th in the FIFA rankings – the lowest of any host nation in World Cup history. They were a lofty 16th back in 1996 after winning the 1995 African Cup of Nations – also on home soil.

No host nation has ever failed to qualify for the knock-out stages, but Booth admits: "Obviously we're the underdogs. But at last year’s Nations Cup we only lost to Brazil and Spain by one goal. If we can play the way we did then, we stand a chance to get out.

“We didn’t even qualify for the Nations Cup in Angola this year. It’s embarrassing. Countries may go through a weak two or three years, but after that you should regenerate. I think we have to get our fingers out and start putting a plan in place to stop the rot.”

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