Football fever in rugby-loving Pretoria

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PRETORIA, June 8 – For the capital of a country that has worked itself into a frenzy over the World Cup, Pretoria has never been much of a football town.The staid seat of executive power has traditionally been a bastion of rugby union, long considered the game of white Afrikaners in the colour-coded world of South African sport.

Pretoria, a city founded in 1855 by Dutch-speaking pioneers seeking freedom from British rule, has retained its strong Afrikaner identity through the years.

The city’s white community, 28 percent of the population, loves the reigning Super 14 rugby champions, the locally-based Blue Bulls, but has historically been indifferent to the "black" game of football.

The arrival of the World Cup, however, is helping redefine the city’s traditional boundaries in race and sport.

"I’m a rugby fan, but I’m not anti-soccer, don’t get me wrong," said 39-year-old Pretorian and Afrikaans-speaker Bruce Esterhuizen.

"It’s all about choice now, it’s not about racial divide," he told AFP. "The only thing is, my heritage is rugby and not soccer. I’ve got nothing against soccer. I will obviously support my country and my team."

Esterhuizen was speaking as he led his two young sons around the Voortrekker Monument, a towering stone structure that commemorates the mass migration of Dutch descendants into the southern African interior in the mid-1800s.

The monument sits on a hilltop overlooking Pretoria, a constant reminder of the Afrikaner settlers’ fierce drive for independence and of the bloody battles they waged with the area’s black inhabitants to establish a homeland of their own.

Esterhuizen said the World Cup has the chance to bring Pretorians together in support of the national side, much as the rugby World Cup did in 1995 — a theme explored recently in the Clint Eastwood film "Invictus".

Organisers hope this tournament, like that one, will help unite a country that still feels the wounds of apartheid 16 years after the end of white-minority rule.

But South Africa in 1995 came together behind a Springboks team that won the world championship, a feat that 83rd-ranked national football side Bafana Bafana are unlikely to match.

Esterhuizen said white Pretorians will start to come together behind "The Boys" if the team can win their opening match against Mexico on Friday in Johannesburg.

"When it starts, then we’ll see what happens," he said. "If Bafana win their first match, everybody will buy into it."

John Wilkinson, a 75-year-old white Pretoria resident and former rugby player, seemed to agree that South Africa’s success on the field will shape the white community’s reaction.

"This is a rugby town," he told AFP. "Soccer is for sissies."

But he admitted to catching the excitement after South Africa beat Denmark 1-0 in a friendly last week.

"I watched the game. I enjoyed it, actually. I was quite surprised," he said.

Gerhard and Riekie Rudolph, a middle-aged Pretoria couple, said the city’s colour lines are starting to fade.

The couple last month travelled to Soweto, Johannesburg’s most famous black township, to watch the Blue Bulls win the Super 14 rugby title there. The team’s home field, Loftus Versfeld, was undergoing final preparations as a World Cup host stadium.

The rugby final scrambled the traditional segregation of South African sport, bringing black township residents together with legions of white rugby fans, many of whom were visiting Soweto for the first time.

"I think we are quite an adaptable type of person in South Africa," Gerhard told AFP.

"The World Cup is quite a historic event for us, and I think that’s why the spirit is now coming alive."

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