Refereeing in the townships

Being handed a whistle and yellow and red cards in a township next to Soccer City should have sparked sympathy for Worl

Referees rarely get a fair crack of the whip.

After the World Cup final last night, I sat in my Netherlands shirt convinced that English official Howard Webb had denied the Dutch and eased Spain on their way to glory.

I texted as much to my brother (our mother is half-Dutch), who suggested I remove my “tulip-tinted spectacles”.

He was right. My bias brushed over the fact that Webb had to deal with dozens of contentious incidents, that he got things right and wrong for both sides, and that the deserving team won.

I should have had more sympathy. Hours before kickoff, in the shadow of Soccer City, I found myself refereeing a township football match.

Now that is pressure.

I had only gone to the Riverlea Extension township to meet the people there and take some photos.


Just 2km away, the multi-million dollar stadium was about to host the culmination of the most extravagant tournament in sport.

Twenty-two (mainly) millionaires – and substitutes – were about to compete for the World Cup trophy.

Here, there was the same story as any township in South Africa.

Poverty, and a warm welcome.

In Riverlea, a scrubby, dusty football pitch 20 minutes’ walk from a sporting showpiece worth billions of dollars.

I had taken a break to play cricket with some Asian children when one of the footballers came over to me.

They needed a ref.

I was quickly handed a whistle, red and yellow cards, and 300 Rand collected from the players and which would go to the winning team.

Here’s where my empathy with Webb should have kicked in.

I was the only white face deep in a township, and I was about to make at least 11 people hate me.

And so it came to pass. An hour in, and one team – the only side that could afford football kit – was 6-0 up.

They were also getting fouled a lot, and committing virtually no fouls themselves. So I was giving them a lot of free kicks. And almost none to the other side.


It finished 8-0. Lots of handshakes and thanks from one side, and inclusion in a team photo. A fair amount of sullen silence from the other.

But, as with every township or poor area I have visited in South Africa over the past month, there was no problem.

The guy holding my camera for me gave it back – after going to take some photos of his mates – and I was given a lift to the main road in a Volswagen Golf so ancient it had developed its own interior micro-climate.

The football at the World Cup has been fairly good. The South African people have been amazing.

And Howard Webb, I suppose, has been alright. Solidarity, brother.