Moscow: For most players the World Cup is the culmination of a long journey that requires years of sacrifice. But in terms of dedication there are not many who can compete with the story of three young supporters from South Africa who are finally living out their dream 20 years after falling in love with the tournament.
“After following a strict and detailed five-year savings plan, myself and two close friends have just landed in Russia,” wrote Fhatuwani Mpfuni, who grew up in the Mamvuka township in Limpopo, 500 miles north of Johannesburg, on Twitter last week.
In a comprehensive thread, the 28-year-old went on to describe the remarkable lengths he, Thami Khuzwayo and Brian Moshoeshoe have gone to fulfil their ambition of attending a World Cup in person after being denied the opportunity of watching it on home soil because they could not afford the ticket prices.
“It’s amazing,” Mpfuni tells the Guardian from St Petersburg, having travelled there after attending Morocco’s game against Iran on Friday.
“When I walked into the stadium I was muted for five minutes and just recollecting the memories. In 1998 I fell in love with football and dreamt of going to a World Cup. But when you’re from a village where you don’t even have things like running water, it can seem like something that will never actually happen.”
The story began when South Africa — known as Bafana Bafana — qualified for their first finals only four years after Nelson Mandela was elected as the country’s first black president. “We didn’t have a TV for the first eight years of my life but a day before [France 98] started my dad surprised us by bringing one home,” remembers Mpfuni.
“At that time we had no electricity in the village so the only way to watch it was by using a generator. Most of the village would come to our house during the tournament and I will always remember the first game against France. We lost 3-0 and everyone was saying Pierre Issa [who scored an own goal] isn’t really South African. Maybe it was a conspiracy or something ...”
Bitten by the World Cup bug, he vowed to attend a match one day. Yet even after Mandela helped secure the 2010 tournament for South Africa, Mpfuni found the cost of tickets was out of reach for his student budget and he was forced to make do with the Fifa fan park in Soweto. “I was living in Johannesburg but couldn’t afford to pay for a ticket. We tried but there was no way that it was going to work. I still enjoyed it but not going just made me even more determined to see a match one day.”
Having made a pact with his friends, an attempt to get to Brazil in 2014 was aborted when the trio realised they did not even have enough money to cover return flights, “never mind accommodation, logistics, tickets, food. So for the fifth time in my life I watched the World Cup on the telly.” Undeterred, they devised a rigorous savings plan to ensure they would not make the same mistake again.
“We had to cut out a lot of things,” admits Mpfuni. “The money that we had already saved went into the pot and we started trying to save a little every month. As the years went by, we increased it, but the key was to make sure we had a list of all the things we needed. It also helped that we were able to book things like our flights and accommodation earlier than most people. We had another friend who wanted to join us but he found it was just too expensive.”
Five years — and around GBP3,000 — later they finally arrived in Moscow, joining thousands of other supporters from around the globe at football’s biggest showpiece. “It’s even better than I imagined,” says Mpfuni. “When the World Cup came to South Africa I saw the vibe around the country but being here is just unbelievable. We always carry our South African flags with us everywhere we go and the love we have been getting from other people has been fantastic.”
He adds: “I was a bit sceptical before I came because of some of the stories I’ve heard about racism but I haven’t seen anything like that. In Moscow everybody just seems to mind their own business and were not as friendly but in St Petersburg we have had a brilliant response. We walk down the street and people ask to take pictures with us. Obviously we look different to them but they are happy to see us.”
In the absence of Bafana Bafana, who were eliminated by Senegal in the qualifiers, they have adopted the other African nations, although that has not exactly gone according to plan with Morocco and Egypt already eliminated and defeats for Nigeria and Tunisia in their opening matches. Nonetheless, Mpfuni is already planning a trip to Qatar in 2022 despite another important upcoming event. “I’m getting married soon so it might be a bit more difficult to save,” he admits.
“But I will definitely be coming back. The love I have been shown has been unbelievable. I’m getting messages from all over the world every day telling me how my story has really inspired them. I’m not just living my dream. I’m also showing that, if you really want something, you can achieve it if you really work hard for it.”