Poor ticket sales highlight Bafana's big image problem
News that the South African Football Association are struggling to sell tickets for Bafana Bafana's crucial Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Nigeria at FNB Stadium on Saturday should serve as a massive red flag for all involved in the sport in the country.
For South Africa, there can be no bigger foe on the African continent than the Super Eagles, and the fact that this is a vital qualifier that could see the team book their place at the Nations Cup finals in Cameroon next year should add extra lustre.
By Tuesday a paltry 7,300 tickets had been sold for the 94,000-seater stadium in Soweto, with officials projecting final sales in the region of 20,000. And it is expected that many of those will be Nigerians from the large diaspora that live in Gauteng.
When the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates was played at the same venue late last month, it was sold out.
When tickets went on sale for a rematch between the duo in the Telkom Knockout, this time to be played at the 63,000-seater Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban one week after the Bafana game, tickets sold out in two hours.
When Chiefs played Mamelodi Sundowns in the league at the FNB Stadium in January, a reported 70,000 fans pitched up. This illustrates that people will go to the stadium if they feel they will get value for the price of their ticket and if they have a team they feel they can get behind.
What ticket sales for this game, and many other recent Bafana Bafana matches show, is that for the majority, neither of those two things hold true.
The struggles of the side from the highs of 2010 FIFA World Cup participation have turned many people off the team. At the recent COSAFA Cup in Polokwane in June, tickets for matches were free and still less than 100 people turned up for some games.
Granted it was a second-string Bafana, but there were top players from the local league there and when you cannot even give away tickets for games then you know you have a problem.
There was a blackout from the national broadcaster of the 6-0 win over Seychelles last week, and this game against Nigeria will also not be aired due to a failure to re-sign a contract with SAFA. Millions around the country who do not have access to pay channels will not be able to watch the game on television, nor listen on radio.
Where is the national outrage? Where are the throngs of people, angry at the fact that they will not be able to watch the game? The news passed with merely a whimper.
The blackout should also have been a boost to ticket sales, one would think, as for many in the Gauteng area it will be their only chance to see the game. That too does not appear to have materialised.
People have become disinterested in the national side. Too many disappointments for too long have left them feeling disconnected from what was once a true beacon of South African sporting excellence.
It is also fair to say that there are fewer 'characters' to ignite the imagination in this team. Before people would come to the stadium to watch Benni McCarthy, Lucas Radebe, Shaun Bartlett, Helman Mkhalele and Doctor Khumalo. They were drawcards on their own.
Who in this current Bafana team has the same pulling power? Percy Tau perhaps. Lebo Mothiba maybe one day. But that is it. There is nothing to ignite the imagination, no feeling of deep anticipation before a game that we might see something special from a special player.
But there is another part to this too and it comes down to the match-day experience of fans. Around the globe, sport is becoming more and more about not just what happens on the pitch, but also what entertainment is offered around the spectacle.
Sport has become an 'event', and you have to ask what SAFA offers fans beyond the chance to see the national side. How are they enticing people to the stadium by saying 'this is not just about the 90 minutes, but come two hours before the game and stay an hour after and we will entertain you'?
Because the drawcard of the national side is just not enough. Not this national side anyway. SAFA need to rehabilitate the image of the team and that starts with winning matches and qualifying for major competitions, especially the World Cup. Easier said than done.
But even that may not be enough for a public so disconnected from the team that they do not seem interested that they have no access to watching them. It has been a sad decline to watch from the outside and who knows if it will ever be a situation reversed.