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South Africa: How Soccer’s ‘Gambling Games’ Build the Sport

In outlining how soccer is played in South Africa, an executive of a soccer club in the rural Cape Winelands district of the country’s Weste...

In outlining how soccer is played in South Africa, an executive of a soccer club in the rural Cape Winelands district of the country’s Western Cape province, explains that the sport has two structures: organised and unorganised.

The organised structure, he explains, falls under competitions endorsed by the South African Football Association. Under the unorganised structure, anyone can organise a competition for money and any team can come and play. However, the football association does not allow clubs affiliated to them to play unorganised soccer, and vice versa.

Colloquially known as “gambling games”, the unorganised structure of soccer among the working people has been the focus of my doctoral and post-doctoral research

Before embarking on my fieldwork research among farm workers in a commercial agricultural region of Rawsonville in the Western Cape, my impression was that there was little sporting action in the lives of this exploited workforce.

This would be true if I looked at the organised structures only. It was through the lens of “unorganised” soccer that a rich and meaningful world of working-class sports opened up. Betting (with money, brandy, sheep or other stakes) was the simple principle guiding organisation of the unorganised soccer games and tournaments.

Studying these, I argue that the unorganised structures embodied working-class aspirations and practicalities of organising and controlling one’s own leisure spaces. The gambling games offered those without reliable access to organised structures an opportunity to create a world of soccer that they could control.

Yet, implicit was a lingering desire to be a part of an organised structure. Also the desire to benefit from becoming a part, to excel, to be seen, to be recognised, and to bring one’s own art and theatre of soccer to the world stage.

Gambling games

More often than not, the gambling games in Rawsonville were arranged between two soccer clubs or teams. If there were more than two teams competing for a single pot of money or other stakes, it was referred to as a tournament. 

South Africa: How Soccer’s ‘Gambling Games’ Build the Sport

A tournament was organised in a knockout format and could involve up to eight teams. The games started as the players started to gather, a referee appointed, and stakes agreed.

The word might go out around a week in advance about the tournament, but it was only on the day that the exact number of contestants would be known. It was not unusual to announce or adjust the distribution of the prize money while the games were already under way. Late arrivals were neither unusual nor unwelcomed; they were accommodated with neat swiftness.

“Unorganised” sustains organised

Although the organised leagues affiliated to and run by the local football associations of South African Football Association (SAFA), were considered more prestigious by most soccer clubs, they were – at least indirectly – sustained by the unorganised structure of gambling games.

The real pull for the vast majority of the soccer clubs to SAFA’s organised structures was the opportunity of “being promoted to Castle league, Vodacom League, and the possibility of one day playing PSL.” As the same executive explains, although SAFA are in charge of all soccer in South Africa, they have not made soccer inclusive for everybody.

“We are being told that the benefits are being promoted to Castle (now SAB) regional league, Vodacom (provincial) League, and the possibility of one day playing PSL (Professional Soccer League), getting sponsorships from SAFA. But there is more money being invested in unorganised soccer than there is money being invested in organised soccer.”

That is not SAFA’s money, that’s private money, he added. The “private money” here does not refer to formal private or corporate sector sponsorship, but rather the money individuals or groups, mostly working men, put towards running their own soccer clubs.

Farmworker-run soccer clubs are spread across vast farmlands, and the costs of travelling to the weekly games, affiliation, and maintaining professional standards were often much higher than what most rural soccer clubs could consistently afford. It is in this context that “more money (was) being invested in unorganised soccer than … in organised soccer.”

As many soccer coach-managers attested, gambling games also served as a training ground to test their prowess, get practice matches, and build a strong foundation before venturing into the official soccer leagues. 

The money won from these games could be used to manage the expenses of the soccer club. Some soccer clubs played in the gambling games with an explicit goal of earning money for SAFA’s affiliation fees.

Soccer provided a flexible and affordable leisure pursuit, and gambling added to the seriousness and excitement to the games for the low-income soccer clubs. One could always organise a game when transport and money were available, without having to worry about the penalties that the local football associations imposed for absentees.

You lose some and win some

In “gambling games, you lose some and win some,” the former coach of the Rawsonville Gunners FC, Tanduxolo “Kolly” Mkoboza, pointed out. Kolly played, coached, and managed soccer in Rawsonville for many years (1998–2014). In those days, he said,

We did not look at it that way, it was just another way of trying to make money to sustain the club. The stronger you are, the more are chances of winning games. Then we can be able to buy soccer kits. But in the mean time we enjoyed playing soccer.

It might seem logical that the stronger the soccer club, the more money it could potentially win. In practice, however, being recognised as distinctively stronger meant fewer clubs would be willing to bet their money against them. 

The gambling games worked best when both teams felt that they had a fair chance at winning, organically levelling the playing field. A stronger soccer club aiming to use gambling games as their stepping-stone to professional soccer were unlikely to achieve their goal.

Given the history of kasi soccer (unorganised soccer in areas that predominantly inhabited by black working class), the ease of putting together a soccer club, and the sheer number of small soccer clubs in the country, sponsorship needed to turn professional was unlikely to come from the SAFA.

While farmworker-run soccer clubs were, from time to time, able to access sponsorship from their employers, someone like Kolly, who worked for the local municipality, relied on his income and a network of soccer-mad friends.

The ease and expertise to run a soccer club, the possibility and unreliability of availability of resources, all play an important role in maintaining the popularity and tradition of soccer gambling games. - The Conversation 

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