S. Africa’s field of dreams?
Bafokeng tribe builds golden soccer facility atop platinum deposit
PHOKENG, South Africa - At 4,000 feet above sea level, the air smelled sweetly of manure as the royal aide pointed to a soccer field as green and smooth as a billiard table.
“This,’’ said Lerato Motaung, raising her voice above the “whisk, whisk’’ of sprinklers, “is our selling point.’’
Indeed, for the Bafokeng tribe of northern South Africa, seven relatively isolated grass practice fields at altitude offer an incredible opportunity. Tribal authorities hope the area will become a major team’s base during next year’s World Cup. The center will offer accommodations - now under construction - with all the amenities of a high-class hotel.
There’s been speculation that the Bafokeng Sports Campus will host a big-name team such as England. Bafokeng officials aren’t saying who’s been checking out the grass, but they say a decision will be announced in December.
The Bafokeng’s dreams are fueled by underground wealth: The tribal homeland sits on the world’s richest reserve of platinum and produces about 55 percent of the global output. The tribe receives royalties from Anglo Platinum, a private mining company, but leaders say they have to think ahead, beyond 2050 when platinum reserves are expected to be exhausted.
The sports center was first envisioned in 2000 as part of a long-term development strategy laid out by King Leruo Molotlegi, a 41-year-old architect and pilot with high aspirations for the 120,000 members of his tribe.
The king made education a priority, with sports as a way to fan enthusiasm for their future among the young and to build a healthy nation. The plan for the sports center was aimed at training young Bafokeng athletes and creating a base for local pro soccer and rugby teams that could one day become revenue streams. The hope was even to attract European teams to train at altitude during the offseason.
Little happened until South Africa won the World Cup bid in 2004. Then, like many dormant dreams across South Africa, the king’s vision got a jolt of energy and government funding.
Ground was broken for the sports center late last year.
The Bafokeng tribal trust also owns a nearby stadium that will be among 10 across South Africa to host World Cup games. During the recent Confederations Cup, a World Cup warmup, the quality of the field at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium was praised.
“Our grass was on top of our game,’’ said Tshepo Malatsi, the grounds manager, who promises the center will have at least one practice surface as “sophisticated and beautiful’’ as the stadium’s by the time a team moves in.
Steve Komphela, a veteran South African coach whose team was recently purchased by the Bafokeng trust, is excited about moving from Johannesburg to Phokeng later this year. The Platinum Stars have already started playing home games at the royal stadium, and soon will make the sports center their practice base.
“The field itself - incredible,’’ Komphela said.
Komphela said he has heard England might snap up Phokeng.
“The English FA have done their homework,’’ he said. “There’s a question of altitude, there’s a question of environment. Altitude is key.’’
England general manager Franco Baldini has said the Phokeng facility is “not necessarily’’ his team’s first choice, and that it was considering a number of possibilities. He said he and coach Fabio Capello would visit South Africa later in the year and then make a choice.
Lindsey Parry, who manages the high-performance division at the University of Pretoria’s Institute of Sports Research, knows many World Cup teams are looking to base themselves on South Africa’s highlands - in and around Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Phokeng. His institute’s Pretoria-based High Performance Centre has been approached by several teams.
The theory is that the body is conditioned to use oxygen more efficiently at higher altitudes. Parry, a triathlete as well as a sports scientist, said researchers don’t yet fully understand what advantages that can give an athlete, let alone how to exploit them. Even if the science is unclear, he said, that doesn’t stop athletes from talking about their theories.
“You’re always trying to get an edge or create doubt in your opponent’s mind,’’ he said.
Komphela said there has never been a World Cup like the one South Africa will put on because of the range of conditions teams will face. That includes tropical Durban; Cape Town, likely to be rainy and windy during the South African winter; the Rustenburg-Phokeng area with its warm, dry, sunny winters; and Pretoria and Johannesburg, similar to Phokeng but usually cooler.
Phokeng, which bills itself “the most developed village’’ in the Bafokeng kingdom, is a 2 1/2-hour drive through dramatic hills from Johannesburg. That separation from the skyscrapers and nightclubs of South Africa’s economic hub might be just what some teams want.
The sports center is bordered on one side by a sleepy highway. The entrance is through a 1970s-style motel. Stretching from the hotel pool and patio are fields, hotel-like blocks of rooms still under construction, areas set aside for clinics, therapy pools, and indoor training.
Malatsi has sunk his fields behind berms of earth to provide even more seclusion. He points beyond the construction site to hilly wilderness. There are lions out there, he said. But don’t worry, there’s also an electric fence.