The temperatures might be dropping below zero at night in Bloemfontein, but that has done very little to dampen the spirits of a place that is home to some of the most fanatical football supporters in South Africa.
Bloemfontein is home to the popular, colourful group of supporters known as the Siwelele, the followers of local favourites Bloemfontein Celtic, undoubtedly one of the fastest growing football outfits in the country. If the vuvuzela has become a fashion item at other stadiums around the country, the Siwelele – a term in the Sesotho language for which there is no direct translation – are renowned for their singing, dancing and clapping during games. Indeed colourful scenes during Celtic's home and away matches have become a norm for South African television audiences.
Today, Bloemfontein will be the point of attraction as Bafana Bafana take on France in their crunch Group A encounter and they can expect noisy support from a capacity crowd inside the Free State Stadium. Despite the team's mixed fortunes at this tournament, including the 3-0 defeat by Uruguay last week, the Celtic supporters will be out in full regalia and ready to rally behind the national team, according to Botha Smila, the man who often leads the singing at the stadium.
He told FIFA.com: "Irrespective of what happens, this is our team and we love them a lot. We have to support the team and we believe they can do something special. In football, anything is possible." Explaining the city's fan culture, he added: "Here people are passionate about the game, it is here where you will meet real football fans who are willing to support their team through thick and thin."
The loyalty of the Siwelele cannot be questioned – even when Bloemfontein Celtic were relegated, they continued to fill the stadium until the team bounced back to the elite league. It is this attitude that has earned them several awards as 'Supporters of the Season' in South Africa's Premier Soccer League. "Football culture in this area dates way back," Smila added. "For many years, people associated Bloemfontein with rugby. That has all changed as locals have now embraced the beautiful game as our number one sport."
His own interest is deep-rooted. "I started going to matches around 1987 and I developed a passion for the game. We started very small, but I think people here realised that we had a treasured asset and fortunately, something good came out of it. Today, we are among the most powerful group of supporters in the country – we eat, drink and sleep football. The game has become part of our lives."
Not surprisingly, George Mohlakoana, Mangaung/Bloemfontein's CEO for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, said that visitors had been impressed by the city, which is the capital of the Free State province and also acts as the judicial capital of South Africa. He said: "The city of Mangaung has been one of the most popular destinations for fans during this tournament and we are pleased with that. I think what people like about the city is that the atmosphere at the stadium is different to other parts of the country. Here you meet fans who are fanatics, who are crazy about the game. We hope that we will continue to attract people."