If you find yourself being overwhelmed by the cynicism so prevalent in Scottish football these days then read this account of a visit to South Africa by occasional NTV contributor Estadio that appeared in the fanzine a few seasons ago.
More than a club? If you know the history? The players? The fans? The origins?
How many games, how many goals, wins, losses, draws do we need to experience to get to the heart of its meaning. Or are the seeds that were planted and flourished now gone, blown by the winds of progress across the Clyde, over the seas and oceans and no longer of relevance to the world in which we live?
It was about 2 pm on a Saturday afternoon that I drove down the main highway and took the turn-off to the town of Bloemfontein. This had been a real goal of my visit to Africa; to see this place and the people who followed a team that had not only been specifically named after our club and adopted the hoops as their own colours but had also created a supporters’ phenomenon that was recognised throughout Africa as genuinely the best, demonstrably the most enthusiastic and undoubtedly the most faithful fans in the whole of the PSL. (Premier Soccer League).
For a Celtic fan visiting Southern Africa this was surely a definitive journey just to see why, right in the heart of what had been called the ‘Orange Free State’ – now just the ‘Free State’ – this community and team had blossomed.
Bloemfontein is not a small town. It is a modern thriving multi cultural metropolis with a profile similar to most inland conurbations in Africa, and as I marvelled at the order and integration of the peoples and streets I caught sight of towering floodlights in the not too distant horizon. Suitably impressed by the skyline and the ease of finding the ground I turned the van in its direction hoping to get a few pictures and possibly meet up with a few of the fans who I was told milled around the ground most days.
There were two grounds! Vans carrying supplies, maintenance personnel and ground-staff were parked in the tar-macadamed car park. Be-suited customers collected tickets for the next games came out of the offices and made their way to their waiting BMWs and similar saloons.
Nowhere did I see anything to identify either ground as belonging to Bloemfontein Celtic, nowhere did I witness the ambience of a football community at leisure and nowhere did I feel that this was anything more than a couple of grounds in the centre of a city going about its normal commercial business.
I was disappointed.
One was The Vodacom stadium – Vodacom being the sponsor of Bloemfontein Celtic and the other was Goodyear Park.
I pulled the van up next to a Police patrol car on my passenger side and wound down the window. The archetypal beautiful black girl at the steering wheel sat alone in the car, her own passenger window wound down.
“Which one do Bloemfontein Celtic play at?“ I shouted.
She looked at me and smiled quizzically.
I repeated my shout.
She answered this time, in that sort of way that gives meaning to ‘Africa Time’.
“Oh they sometimes play over there behind that stadium, not at either of these. That’s the Rugby Union Ground and the other one there is the cricket ground. But sometimes over there” she pointed at a point that I couldn’t see.
“Why do you ask?” she went on.
She seemed to have given up on me and went back to talking to whoever on her radio, presumably tired out with the effort of giving me all the information I needed to get to the ground.
My driver door suddenly rattled and outside my window stood another copper. He was smiling; smiling didn’t always mean that the smiler was happy, but I wound down the window.
“Just follow us,” he said.
By this time the woman copper had approached my passenger door.
“Bloemfontein sometimes play here but their own ground is right across town. I’ve talked to the station and we’ve been told we can escort you there.”
“Just follow us,” the man repeated.
On went the blue flashing light, on screamed the siren and like a scene from an African Taggart we sped through the plush centre of town and headed somewhere! I stuck as close as I could as traffic ground to a halt at the sight and sound of the approaching law vehicle; I cut corners as they skidded through the turns and I jumped lights as they did, attached to their rear bumper by an invisible but unbreakable thread. This was a wee boy’s dream, and this was a big Bhoy’s ambition. And then the whole scene changed.
Houses and roads gave way to shacks and rutted tracks, orderly streets and pavements disappeared to be replaced by thousands upon thousands of people walking, running, lounging and passing the time of day in another black township, another forgotten and neglected community, another frontier of survival, another sink of abject poverty.
We slowed down; the town name stood bright and proud, Siwelele it proclaimed and there was the freeze-frame of everything I had heard, everything I had imagined. There was a township with nothing but their football shirts on, hoops not so much worn as tattooed, a club which they had created and given meaning, and in return a club which gave them meaning and a cause, not a distraction but the reason for their smiles and the smiles of their reason.
There was the Gallowgate; a Gallowgate full of black folk.
“No dogs, no blacks, no Irish!”
I didn’t take too many pictures. It is difficult to take snaps when your eyes are welling up and your hands are trembling. I would take some but only when I had asked and they had agreed.
We drew up outside the main entrance to the ground. It could have been any street, any entrance. It was around the back, down the lane, across the track and opposite another thousand shacks, most without water, most without electricity but most teaming with a spirit of life and hope that smiled from their window, lit up their faces and screamed at me as the weans came running out the doorways towards me. Just to say ‘Hello’.
Was this what Brother Walfrid had seen all those years ago? Was this why he had founded the institution that we all identified with. Was this just the east end of Glasgow with black faces and empty stomachs that he had set out to eradicate? Was he here in spirit and was that spirit the inspiration that had prompted Petros Molemela to have given it the name ‘Celtic’?
The two coppers jumped from their land-rover.
Delacourt, the man introduced himself.
“Ahh but you should see it on match-day,” he smiled.
I had never seen a whole person smiling till then. He almost enacted a full ninety minutes in a few seconds.
“It is the greatest scene in the world. The singing, the chanting, the dancing, the cheering. It is beautiful”.
I asked the policewoman her name.
I couldn’t pronounce her answer. She knew that and immediately said, “But everyone has a problem with my name so they all call me Phyllis”
“Phyllis it is,” I said. “Can I take your picture?”
I gave her the hat that I had been given in Australia, a hat with many badges from worldwide Celtic Supporters Clubs.
“Please keep that,” I said.
Delacourt got me permission to go inside the ground.
There was no game and no one else there. But I could hear the singing, I could see the swaying. This was their Paradise.
I took loads of photos, too many and boring for here, but there was their Janefield Street, their Celtic end, their Jungle.
As I returned to the car park, the children came back.
A whole family came up to me and introduced themselves. (note here spellings etc are approximate)
“I am Maledi, it means beauty, she is Tandi, that is love, Palesi, flower, Garezi, peace and Busega, importance.”
I drove back to a little shack that I had sped by earlier.
This is your local greengrocers.
And the three smiles are Brenda, Lenan, and Fortunate in the middle.
Fortunate asked me to make sure I told lots of visitors to come and see them. Lots of Celtic supporters to come and see them and to come and stay with them!
The owner’s name is Michael.
I went in to thank him for allowing me to take the picture, and since he didn’t have any bananas left, I bought something that he was probably going to throw away.
Michael was on his way to a shebeen (yes that’s what they call their drinking places – and not just in Bloemfontein, in all townships – to spend the few rand I paid with. I hope you enjoyed your um*umbothi Michael! (I’ll explain that some other time).
There is poverty here beyond belief. But there is no self pity and no lack of industry. Everything is re-usable, recyclable, reinventible and most of all everything is available for everyone to make what they can of it.
As for the football itself. Well I didn’t see a game. But ask Bill McIntosh at the Johannesburg Celtic Supporters club. Ask about their trip, the welcome they were given; about being announced to the crowd, about taking pride of place in the centre circle; of how the crowd identified with Celtic from Glasgow. Ask him what memories Bloemfontein Celtic left with him.
I am sure that in other places I will talk long about my times at Siwelele and in other townships. But without doubt the sounds, sights and experiences centred on Bloemfontein Celtic will live me with forever just as the stories of the East End of Glasgow and Brother Walfrid have reverberated for so long.
Perhaps we are no longer in need of his legacy here in Glasgow. Perhaps it is only right that the seeds of his vision that saved and inspired so many in the hovels of the likes of The Calton, the Gorbals, The Garngad, Coatbridge, Croy and Cleland have been caught by that breeze and settled in a place that has a greater need. Perhaps we are now no more than a football club that will survive or fail on the pitch and in the boardrooms of the money men and perhaps we have all in our own insularity underestimated just what Andrew Kerrins started all those 122 years ago.
In years to come Bloemfontein Celtic may be more than a club, may be supported by the greatest fans in the world and may have a history that is unique. Against all odds they make take on the aristocrats of whatever competitions are put their way; they may be underestimated, condescended to and even conspired against. Maybe for a short time their star will shine brighter than all the other stars and in the shadow of those rays, the investors, asset strippers, and manipulators will move in.
And maybe then Brother Walfrid will perform his magic again and up will spring another Celtic, in another time and another place, with the same old eternal objective, the same old eternal principles.
Someone once said to me on CQN that we place too much emphasis on our history, our roots and our mythology. He also used that old aphorism that history repeats itself, the first time as farce and the second as tragedy.
But there are histories that repeat themselves as echoes of virtue; maybe we need to be even prouder and place more emphasis on those.
I know what I consider a success.
That’s a great thought.