CAPE TOWN – From a qualifier winning the US Open women’s title, to the world’s greatest player getting stunned in the men’s final, to the high of Ronaldo’s sensational return to Old Trafford, only for the Young Boys to humble Manchester United and the King of Comebacks a few days later … The past week was a celebration of sport’s incredible ability to tell a story.
I started playing sports when I was five-years-old in my first year at school. I played for the U-7 rugby team and by the time I was eight, my weekly calendar was filled with every and any sporting option at my school and every game that was going on in my street and at the park.
It didn’t matter what it was, if the ball bounced, moved or could be kicked, caught or hit, I was there. Our garage door took a pounding on a daily basis as I won many a Grand Slam tennis title.
I started watching sport on television in 1976, as an eight-year-old, and my first visits to Newlands rugby and cricket grounds also came as an eight-year-old.
It was a huge year because my favourite rugby player, Western Province flyhalf Robbie Blair, kicked the winning conversion against another of my favourite teams, the All Blacks. I was at Newlands in the railway stand when the ball sailed over after he had missed eight penalties that day.
I also saw the All Blacks win against the Proteas at the Goodwood Showgrounds. My rugby world seemed complete in that season and my cricket world went to another level when Garth le Roux singled me out to sign my bat on his return from being the biggest star in the Kerry Packer World Series in Australia.
Peter Kirsten also made my early mornings at Newlands Cricket Ground buzz because he always took time to sign my autograph bat and have a chat and then there was the bliss of knowing any day at Newlands cricket meant a “lolly to make you jolly and an ice-cream to make you dream” from the most famous ice-cream seller Boeta Cassiem, who passed away this week. Back in the day, for me, he was Mr Cassiem.
Cape Town City was my soccer team and the memory of those cold nights at Hartleyvale still warms the heart.
Charlie Weir was my guy when it came to boxing and I was crushed when Joseph Hali knocked him out at the Good Hope Centre. I experienced every range of emotion in the return fight when it looked like the Silver Assassin was going to be knocked out again, only for him to recover and win by a knockout.
My dad was an avid reader of newspapers, in particular the sports section. I was of that rare breed of eight-year olds who loved reading newspapers. I still do today. There is something so comforting about the smell of the paper, which takes me back to those formative years when I fell in love with the theatre of sport, the sense of euphoria when my team won, the heartache when they lost and the awe I felt when watching some of my idols perform; equally the frustration when these sporting giants stumbled on the odd occasion.
As I grew older and travelled internationally, I got introduced to some of the finest sports writing, especially from the United States, and got to meet many of these wonderful storytellers of sport’s delight and despair.
For me to have a career writing sport has meant that I have never felt like I had a job, but rather always felt like that eight-year-old looking for the next game to play, the next hero to be, the next villain to conquer and the next sporting story to tell.
This past week the eight-year-old in me buzzed with the return to Old Trafford of Ronaldo. A disclaimer: Liverpool is my team and Lionel Messi is the master when it comes to the Messi v Ronaldo debate.
But my personal preference was secondary to what would play out at the Theatre of Dreams. I wanted Ronaldo to score. I knew he would score and I watched the match with Manchester United fans. It was glorious. I envied those sports writers at Old Trafford who would get to tell the story of his two goals, his presence, United’s win and the occasion.
Ronaldo played as if he had never left Old Trafford. It was a fairytale. A few nights later, despite another Ronaldo
goal, United lost in the Champions League. Once again, sport had proved a leveller, humbling of ego and crushing of expectation when consideration was not given to anything but victory.
I experienced that, as a fan and a writer, when Novak Djokovic lost in straight sets in the US Open final. Djokovic, a match away from a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam, was in my mind never going to lose. I settled in at 10pm on Sunday evening and a few hours later simply felt stunned. It was as if I had lived every losing point when the night before I had lived every winning point of the teenager Emma Raducanu who became the first qualifier to ever win a Grand Slam title.
What a contrast in winners at the US Open final. It was a story that no one would have scripted but it was the one that continues to make sport such compelling viewing.
Equally, when it came to the Springboks and last Sunday’s Rugby
Championship match against Australia, who at kick-off were ranked 7th in the world and had got hammered by the All Blacks in three successive Test matches.
I lost the plot momentarily, calling them wimps on the basis of their meek surrender and chumps because of a three from 12 record in the past 18 months. I claimed with confidence and arrogance that it was champ against chump and the scoreboard would reflect it.
It didn’t, but there was still the escape of a late rally from the Springboks and a one-point win when the world champions led by 26-25 on 79 minutes and 40 seconds.
I could still save some face and then Australia got a penalty and Quade Cooper stepped up to kick the winner. Bring on the humble pie and the social media abuse. I wanted Cooper to kick it; not because I wanted Australia to win but because I wanted Cooper’s fairytale sports story to be complete.
Cooper, who I had watched implode and disintegrate at Eden Park in Auckland at the 2011 World Cup semi-final defeat against the All Blacks, had not played Test rugby in five years.
Yet, here he was, having already kicked six penalties and a conversion from seven attempts, about to beat the world champions with the last kick of the game.
The storyteller in me willed his kick to go over, just as the storyteller in me travelled every metre of Morne Steyn’s series winning penalty kick against the British & Irish Lions.
Steyn’s kick in 2021, a repeat of his series winning kick in 2009, made for a remarkable comeback story. Cooper’s wasn’t quite at the same level in the context of a series, but no less remarkable for what he achieved as an individual.
It was sporting theatre at its best and as his kick went over, I felt the pain of every Lions supporter after Steyn’s kick.
The only difference is I potentially get to feel something different when the two teams meet again today, whereas Lions supporters have a 12-year wait for redemption.
Sport, beautiful and cruel, but always compelling theatre.
* This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Mr “Boeta” Cassiem. The lolly always made this eightyear-old jolly and the ice cream always made me dream. Thank you.