Matthew Booth’s story reminds one of how sports in SA was and still is segregated along racial lines.
Cricket and rugby were always the sport of choice for the privileged white population. Football was more the sport of the poorer blacks and the coloureds majorities living in shanty towns playing the sport on hardscrabble grounds. The sport was organized as a means of fighting apartheid and it played a major part in SA’s isolation for almost 30 years from any sporting contact with the rest of the world. Bafana Bafana played their first match in 1992 after the Botha government renounced apartheid.
Makhaya Ntini became the first black test cricketer in 1997. He was controversially indicted on rape charges two years later which almost terminated his career. Ntini successfully fought the charges and six months later was reinstated to the national team. Fighting of the negative connotations of the case, Ntini rebuilt his career and is now the leading wicket taker for the Proteas. He paved the way for more non-white representation and now the Proteas boast Hashem Amla, the gifted right handed batsman of Indian origin, whose spectacular form against the hitherto invincible Australians exposed major drawbacks in their bowling.
These examples show that the walls are slowly crumbling and crossover stories are becoming more commonplace. However, the opposite route of whites entering the world of football is less explored. Matthew Booth apart from his skill will also be known as the player who broke those lines. He stands out literally at 6′ 6″ as the only white player in an otherwise black team.
“To play football, I had to go to a local club after school. It had an open-door policy allowing blacks and whites to play together, which was probably against the law at that time.
“It meant that from the age of five I was playing alongside black and coloured kids, when my schoolmates would never have come into contact with them.”
He also cautions against reading too much into his story. Although, football is hugely popular, it still reflects an imbalance in the economic bottomline. One does not get rich playing league matches in SA.
“Football has been construed as a black sport here in South Africa and that means it hasn’t got the money it deserves,” he says.
“Rugby and cricket are seen as the white sports and they get the money and the sponsorship.”
Booth is urging the South African government to invest more in grassroots football and to stop school sports being played along racial lines.
His marriage to Sonia Bonnaventia, a supermodel who grew up in Soweto, took him far away from the leafy suburbs of white Fish Hoek in Cape Town but closer to the hearts of black South Africans. But Booth is not just a great story in racial transcendence because in the end it is performances that matter and he has been a force in the backfield for Bafana Bafana. Which is why he is a fan favourite no matter which colour.