On the first day of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, Johannesburg's Soccer City will make history by being the first African stadium to host a match in the finals when South Africa's national team takes on Mexico. Those familiar with the venue will see immediately the money, labour and effort that has been invested in transforming it from it’s original structure to the architectural eye-candy that it has turned into.
One man who has intimate memories of the storied venue is Lucas Radebe – a player who is idolised not only on his home soil but all over the world. As the new Soccer City opened its doors, FIFA.com joined the former Bafana Bafana icon and Leeds United star as he reminisced about some of South Africa’s triumphant moments at the stadium.
The date that first springs to mind is more than a decade ago now. It was 3 February 1996 - four years after South Africa had been re-admitted into world football. And Radebe, the lanky defender who was about to play a game that will mould his career and that of his team-mates, stood in trepidation in the tunnel at Soccer City (then FNB Stadium) a few minutes before the countries biggest football match in their short history. In the stands were thousands of South Africans waiting in anticipation of the start of the 1996 CAF Africa Cup of Nations final between the hosts and favourites Tunisia. Ninety minutes later, South Africa had defeated the odds and beat the fancied north Africans 2-0 and claim the country’s proudest footballing moment to date.
“It was unbelievable. I can remember that day as if it was yesterday,” says Radebe on a tour of the re-built Soccer City Stadium. “I remember standing here [pointing to the edge of the pitch] when we were playing Tunisia, I have never felt that nervous in football. It’s funny that more than 14 years later, the events of that day are still vivid in my memories. It is here, in this ground that we recorded our historic victory. But one of our biggest games here was when we beat Cameroon 3-0 at the start of the Africa Cup of Nations, that was a changing moment in history for us,” Radebe adds.
Now sporting a new look - a Calabash shape that boasts a capacity of 88,000 spectators - the new Soccer City is, in comparison, plush, posh and imposing. But the history remains for Radebe. “You know, walking inside this stadium gives me goose-bumps. I now feel jealous. I wish I was 10 years younger so that I can be one playing against Mexico [laughing].
"While the old ground was impressive, this one looks classy and bigger. Actually, the first time I walked in here, I could hardly recognise the stadium. The venue is still the same, and the memories will always be there. But when one tries to do a recollection of all the historic events that happened here, it is hard to imagine that so much has changed in this stadium – without a doubt, it has changed for the better,” he says.
Undoubtedly one of the most celebrated figures in South African football, Radebe made his name in 1989 when he was spotted by one of the country’s most adored teams from Soweto, Kaizer Chiefs. Soweto is a stone’s throw away from Soccer City, and for Sowetans, two venues hold sentimental value in their hearts: Soccer City and Orlando Stadium.
While the latter is sacred for being the place where many hopeful footballers from Soweto have launched their careers, the former is regarded as a Cathedral – a place to congregate, celebrate and make memories. One such is the historic address by Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison in 1990. Bar his appearance on the day of his release at Cape Town’s Grand Parade, the appearance at Soccer City was Madiba’s first address to the waiting nation.
“You know, this venue is special in our hearts. We have had so many great moments here, maybe it will take me the whole day to tell people about them one by one. One of the sad things about our past is that, in the early years, there were no good facilities for our people – it was only a small group that had all the first-class facilities. But to have a stadium like this in Soweto is applaudable. Slowly, we are bridging that gap,” adds Radebe, who was also part of the first South African team to play at Soccer City on 11 July 1992 when Bafana Bafana were held to a 2-2 draw by then African giants, Cameroon, in front of a capacity crowd.