PART of the fun as a sportswriter is having to cover, or just watch events, at some of world sport’s most hallowed grounds.
I have enjoyed the privilege of a little taste of some of these bustling cauldrons of activity in different parts of the world, to form lasting memories.
The Rades Stadium in Tunisia is an absolute giant of an arena and even if it does not easily fill up, like when it was when Esperance hammered Zimbabwe’s Dynamos 6-0 in the African Champions League in 2012, you can produce a separate story about the Tunisian giants’ group of young fiercely passionate fans on one end of the ground.
Shirtless, drum-beating and chanting non-stop, burning firecrackers and all, there is actually no time for these seemingly possessed chaps to watch the match itself – just immersed in the passion for a team that is to them much more than a football club, but a way of life.
It took me back to an experience of the Allianz Arena, with sections occupied by diehards who have no time to sit. I was over there at the beginning of the German summer of 2005, part of a specially assembled group of global journalists invited, amongst other things, to witness the official grand opening of this breathtaking stadium as Bayern Munich defeated a Germany XI 4-2 in a housewarming match.
Eight days later we were up five hours by road at night to Mönchengladbach and back for a friendly international between Germany and Russia at Bökelbergstadion, the home ground of the local favourite Borrusia Monchengladbach.
If you ever thought that folks hold back just because it is only a friendly, you will come back with a completely different view of this global phenomenon called football. The strong spirit of nationalism – between both sets of fans and players – are moments people live for.
In Ghana, the Ohene Djan Stadium offered the perfect introduction to West Africa. With their Black Stars just needing a point to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with a game to spare and playing the penultimate qualifier at home against Sudan – whose players were Ramadan-weary in the Accra heat – the Ghanaians do not miss the opportunity to be part of such a festivity in an exhibition of colour and culture.
South African stadiums are also famed for their spectacular atmosphere because of the chemistry they create with the fans, who are not too far from the action. Cricket’s Wanderers Stadium and SuperSport Park were pretty special places to be during the 2009 Indian Premier League (IPL). The braais and the drinking are characteristically South African and it is something you take away with you. Of course not forgetting Soccer City, Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld for the 2010 Fifa World Cup. Stuff like that does not fade.
In the West Indies’ Guyana for the 2010 T20 World Cup, covering a neutral match without the Windies involved felt like a vacation, a unique Caribbean experience in a tournament where the thousands of travelling supporters have come for the sun, the sea and the sand as much as the cricket.
Despite the glamour and affluence of all these establishments, they do not however stand out as the only venues that can provide lifelong memories to a sports fan from any corner of the planet. Some of the other theatres of dreams are in the unlikeliest of territories, in the unlikeliest sporting codes.
Like the Legends Rugby Club and the Kyadondo Rugby Club in Kampala, Uganda. They are clearly doing something right in Ugandan rugby by putting their money where their mouth is, in a sport they know they are physical and perhaps genetically equipped to compete – rugby. The deliberate efforts are bearing fruit.
This past month has seen Africa staging the next Olympic qualifiers for Sevens rugby in both the men and women’s game. Harare was first to host the men’s event in September and here were the top three in that order: Kenya, South Africa, Uganda. Women’s competition in Tunisia last weekend: South Africa, Kenya, Uganda!
The Ugandans taking bronze in both should not surprise anybody because they have been putting in the hours, and the investment. Ugandan rugby and national sports authorities have appealed to the minds and souls of their citizens, that while their football teams might not prompt much of a high opinion, rugby gives them the opportunity to be seen and respected.
The Ugandan rugby culture is centred around the Legends and Kyadondo, where players of all ages, both sexes, are taken through structured training programmes by qualified coaches.
Fans are part and parcel of that culture and you need to be at one of these two modest grounds during a Cranes home Test, or tournaments, to witness something different to the Springboks at Loftus, but something uniquely special in its own right.
For the players, it is non-negotiable to fight for those patriotic spectators – men and women – who gather in their numbers hours before the game amid inimitable East African fanfare.
I was at the incredibly noisy Legends with Zimbabwe’s Sables for the Victoria Cup in 2019 and they swear no one, no matter who it is, can come to their fortress and leave with bragging rights.
The smoke from the braai, the local beverages, the polite and well-behaved spectators in spite of the thoroughly remarkable alcohol consumption, the involvement of the good-natured expatriates in the fun, makes one want to relive the experience and I certainly would like to do so again one day when the Cranes are winning a big Test match.
It is about the rugby, the tasty meat, the friends and, more importantly, a celebration of being Ugandan and playing a part in the advancement of Ugandan rugby.
You could hear a pin drop each time Zimbabwe scored a try in the Sables’ tense win, then just moments late the great sounds would reverberate again throughout the ground – 5 000 voices in unison and believing their rugby team to be the best Uganda can brandish to the world of sport.
I recognised some of the faces of the fans from Legends at Harare Sports Club last month – again all cheerful, singing, the next biggest group of fans after Zimbabwe. It must have been great sacrifice for them to come all the way down here, and they even had a big travelling media contingent.
It was like Legends and Kyadondo in Harare and they did provide quite an atmosphere over the two days.
What Uganda has done is the first step of creating a sporting culture, bringing the particular code into discussion, and involving as much people as possible across the nation.
The Ugandan male and female teams are off to the inter-continental play-offs for Paris 2024 – a much tougher competition. But you would want to see good things happen to those who believe in themselves, those who take themselves seriously.
So come on you, Cranes, and may the faithful of Legends and Kyadondo continue to accompany you on the journey!