Let’s hear it for Booth
As anyone watching South Africa in action at the FIFA Confederations Cup has surely noticed, whenever the ball finds its way to the towering Bafana Bafana central defender Matthew Booth an unusual cry goes up round the stands.
To the uninitiated it might sound like the thousands of home fans are registering their displeasure at the Mamelodi Sundowns defender. After all, Booth would not be the first player to be on the receiving end of catcalls from his own fans. But as millions of spectators around the world have discovered this week, the noise that greets his every intervention are not boos but adulatory cries of "Booooth".
What was perplexing viewers even more was the fact that the man in question barely put a foot wrong in his side's opening two games, prompting them to ask why fans would boo one of their own players when is performing so well.
It was a riddle that even South Africa coach Joel Santana had to ponder after he took over the job. "The first time I heard the shouts in the stadium I just couldn't understand what was going on," said the Brazilian. "I was under the impression that the fans loved Matthew but there they were seemingly booing him for no apparent reason."
But as the smiling Booth explained to FIFA.com, peculiar cries of encouragement are something of a tradition among football fans in the Rainbow Nation. "When Mark Fish played for Bafana Bafana it was the same. The fans shouted ‘Fiiish, Fiiish' at him and it sounded like they were having a go. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to explain to foreigners that there's nothing wrong, that people love me really."
And the dependable defender is not wrong, receiving the kind of adulation normally reserved for goalscorers and more creative players. "I think it's got something to do with my commitment," he continues. "The fans can see that I take games seriously. Or maybe it's just because I look like a nice guy to them. I don't know. You'd have to ask them."
A veteran of seven seasons in Russia before returning home, Booth is hoping to take part in his first FIFA World Cup™ finals next year. He came agonisingly close to making an appearance at Korea/Japan 2002, suffering a kee injury during a training session at the squad's pre-tournament camp in Hong Kong just ten days before the opening game.
"The fact is that was very tough to take," he recalls. "It was the only time I've ever had surgery in my career and it wasn't even that serious. It just came at the worst possible time. That's why I want to try and convince Joel Santana with my performances at the Confederations Cup and make sure of a place for 2010. It would mean so much to me."
Having drawn with Iraq and beaten New Zealand 2-0 in their opening two games in Group A, Booth and his team-mates now face the toughest challenge of all, a meeting with European champions Spain in Mangaung/Bloemfontein on Saturday evening.
"Facing a pair of strikers like Fernando Torres and David Villa is going to be one of the biggest challenges of my career for sure," says Booth, undaunted by the task of taking on a side that is unbeaten in its last 34 games. "But this is exactly the kind of game we want to play, against a top side with a semi-final place at stake. It's the type of challenge we've been preparing for."
With four points in the bank, the hosts are well placed to clinch that semi-final slot, thanks in the main to the impressive defeat of the Kiwis. "What a difference a game makes," continues Booth. "It felt like nobody had any faith in us before that match but now there's a lot of optimism in the air." So much optimism in fact that the big defender is refusing to entertain thoughts of a first-round exit. "I don't want to even think about that. It would be a disaster. There's no other word for it."
The South Africans only need to take a point from the Spanish to advance to the last four. And should they achieve that objective on Saturday, the now world-famous "Booooth" war cry is sure to be heard long into the night.