South Africa's 13th player

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BLOEMFONTEIN, March 16 – Thousands of people stomp their feet and chant the traditional Sesotho-language greeting, "Siwelele, wele, wele", cheering Bloemfontein's football team with a burst of song from the heart of a South African township.The joyous scene in the 20,000-seat Ramabodu stadium is a typically South African celebration of football, born of the apartheid years, when football stadiums were one of the only venues where blacks could gather in public.

And Bloemfontein may be home to South Africa’s most enthusiastic football fans.

Men and women, elderly and infants, pack into every available space in the stadium. A human sea, dressed in the white and green colours of the local Celtics team, undulates through the stands.

They sing and dance without pausing for one second of the 90 minutes of game time.

"They are the 13th player. They are just phenomenal," said coach Owen Da Gama.

"It’s something special. I’ve played in Belgium, I’ve played in Ireland, but I’ve never seen such support. This support, when you go down, then they start getting more powerful. It’s really fantastic."

The hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors expected for the World Cup "are going to be surprised by the South African supporters," he said. "There is no violence, there is no fighting."

The party starts well before the match, along the road where fans often walk for kilometres to reach the stadium, and doesn’t end until late into the night.

Despite the drinking, and the marijuana, the hooliganism that mars European matches is unknown in South Africa.

"If I lose or I win, I party," said Shay, a Soweto Pirates fan. He says he’s 49-years-old, and he’s "been a Pirates supporter for the same number of years. Our father was a Pirates supporter."

Sixteen years after South Africa’s first all-race elections, the long shadow of the country’s divided past still endures in sport. Whites are rarely seen at football stadiums, although some turned out for the curtain raiser Confederations Cup last June.

In the 19th century, football gained popularity across the country. When racial segregation was institutionalised in 1948, football was already a sport for blacks while white Afrikaaners, descendants of the first European settlers, took to rugby.

Even during the darkest hours of apartheid, the stadium would be packed on weekends, remembers 38-year-old David Butiki Mokwena.

"On Saturdays and Sundays, we used to come here when Celtics was playing," he said.

"As kids, we used to play football with a ball made of plastic bags. I was amazed, looking at real football," he said.

"We were very happy as young people, because even if we didn’t have money, they would allow us to come in when it was half-time, and watch the game for free."

"When the Celtics were playing, everything would stop. The shebeens (bars) knew they wouldn’t make any money until the football was over. Even at churches, the pastors would keep the ceremony short. It’s still the case now," he said.

Away from the stadium, blacks risked arrest if they were seen singing and dancing, because police would assume they were protesting against the government.

"But when we were here, they knew we were celebrating. No one would arrest us," Mokwena said.

Then in 1988 things changed, as national television showed thousands of fans raising their fists in the air and singing the liberation anthem "Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika", or God Bless Africa, at the football.

"The black, green and gold flag of the ANC was fluttering in the bright sunshine — even though flying it carried a prison sentence — and the tears rolled freely down my cheeks as the crowd rose, fists in the air to sing," said Tony Karon, a journalist and former activist.

"I knew in that moment that the regime had lost."

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