Mathew Booth lines up alongside his South African team mates
South African defender Matthew Booth talks about the world's changing perception of his country, and his hopes for the World Cup.
From The Daily Telegraph
Six foot six inch Mamelodi Sundowns centre back Matthew Booth is the only white player in South Africa's World Cup squad.
So when some members of the Spanish press thought they heard him being booed by black fans at the Confederations Cup last summer they thought they had a great story about racial disharmony in the new South Africa and filed their copy to Madrid.
They got it excruciatingly, embarrassingly wrong. The fans were celebrating their cult hero, launching into a resonant chant of "Booth!" every time he met the ball with one of his thumping defensive headers.
"It was a knee-jerk reaction from some Spanish journalists," Booth said. "Their league had obviously come in for some criticism for racism at games.
"They had come to South Africa with our history and thought they had a good story. It was a bit naughty really, they should have asked me or someone in the ground."
To compound Spanish embarrassment, Booth could not be a better advertisement for a new integrated, optimistic South Africa. Quite literally: he and his wife Sonia, a model from Soweto, have endorsed various products on billboards around the country, such is their boundary-transcending appeal.
His standing in the football consciousness of his country is reflected in his being invited onstage with David Beckham, Charlize Theron and Desmond Tutu to take part in the World Cup draw in Cape Town in December.
Yet for all the work that has been put in to show the positive face of South Africa, it is hard to change people's preconceptions.
"As a nation we've had to put up with this ever since we won the right to host the World Cup," he said. We have just had to ignore all the negative stuff going around and prove people wrong. That's what you do on the football pitch and that's what you have to do as a nation.
"It's a pity there have been so many articles that have been written to scare people because the public take cognizance of that.”
Modern South Africa
Booth met his wife Sonia through a Mamelodi Sundowns team-mate 10 years ago and with their two sons, the Booths are regarded as a model family for the modern South Africa.
"In Johannesburg nobody bats an eyelid," Booth said. "It's a very cosmopolitan city. It's nice to be highlighted in that way but we don't want it to grow into something more than it should be. We just think race should not be an issue."
Together they have set up the Booth Education and Sports Trust, an ambitious new charity whose website will be launched this week. The emphasis of the sports side of the charity is to provide youth coaching and equipment in deprived areas and, where possible, to put in artificial pitches.
"Water is a big issue here," he explained. "You need 60 per cent less water on an artificial pitch."
The education side is about encouraging children to read across all economic bands. "We want to popularise the reading of books again so we will set up book clubs and organise spelling bee competitions. Kids just don't pick up books anymore and we want to change that."
It is a generous and laudable way for Booth to use his elevated profile, a status that has come late in his career. Until last year he looked like being merely a spectator this summer after a decade out of the national side.
"There was no way I was guaranteed a place in the squad so to make it into the provisional squad and then into the final squad was a great feeling. We have 23 million footballers in this country so to get down to the final 23, well, that's just such an honour."
All that anticipation crystallises into one moment on Friday, when Bafana Bafana emerge from the tunnel into the cacophony of Soccer City to take on Mexico in the opening game of the tournament.
"People underestimate what is waiting for them in Soccer City." It is time for South Africa, and Booth, to be judged on their football.
Excerpt from The Daily Telegraph, to read this article in full, please click here.